Rhinos are being killed in such unprecedented numbers that there are realistic fears they could be wiped from the face of the planet within a generation.
If this happens, it will be the first major extinction of an animal in the wild since the worldwide conservation movement began.
Poaching is driven by the astonishing street value for rhino horn, which fetches $32,000 per pound, more even than gold. Chinese medicine and jewellery are the main markets, but, in recent years, widespread rumours in Vietnam that rhino horn can cure cancer has seen demand there rocket. As a result, the Javan rhino became extinct in that country in November, the last known animal being found dead with its horn hacked off.
In South Africa, more rhinos are being slaughtered for their horns in a single week than were killed in a whole year a decade ago. And the toll is fast accelerating. In 2007, a mere 13 were killed. In 2008, it was 83, and, a year later, 122. Last year it was 448, and this year, by 19 April, it was 181. That is equivalent to 600 a year in a country which is home to 93 percent of all white rhinos.
One expert thinks that at this rate the species could be wiped out by 2025. Others think it could take longer. Patrick Bergin, chief executive of African Wildlife Foundation, said: “If the poaching of rhino continues at current rates, we could see their extinction within our lifetime. The situation is absolutely at crisis levels.”