Illegal hunting of South Africa's rhinoceros population caused a new record death toll last year, with more than a thousand slain, continuing an exponentially growing poaching wave, according to a newly released report released by that country's government.
Conservationists say the trend will soon outpace birth rates for the species, threatening a population crash. The killings have been fueled by a spike in demand for rhino horn from some southeast Asian countries, principally China and Vietnam, where it used in folk medicine or viewed as a status symbol.
In all, 1,004 rhinoceros were killed in 2013, up from 668 the previous year. For a stark comparison: a mere three dozen died from poachers' hands between 1990 and 2007.
A total 2,778 have been killed since the current wave began in 2008 - the last six years have seen a more than 7,000 percent increase in rhino killings compared to the previous 17 years. They are the highest numbers since South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs began documenting the animals' deaths.
The majority of killings have occurred in Kruger National Park, the country's premier wildlife refuge, despite recent increases in park ranger presence and surveillance aircraft - including unmanned drones.
Jo Shaw of the World Wildlife Fund's South Africa chapter says the illicit trade's effects extend beyond the savanna.
"These criminal networks are threatening our national security and damaging our economy by frightening away tourists," Shaw said in a written statement. "Rhino poaching and rhino horn trafficking are not simply environmental issues, they represent threats to the very fabric of our society."
Two horns confiscated at a Prague airport Thursday are estimated to have a black market value of $360,000.
The report comes a week after a Texas hunting organization controversially auctioned off the right to kill a single, specific endangered black rhino for $350,000. The Dallas Safari Club said proceeds for the bid would contribute to conservation efforts for the black rhino, but the move nonetheless drew the ire of environmental groups.
The anonymous winner, whose name was outed on social media, has since told ABC affiliate WFAA-TV in Dallas he's received death threats for participating.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates roughly 25,000 rhino roam the continent, down from over a million before the 20th century. South Africa hosts the vast bulk of the large mammals and while conservation efforts stabilized some populations, others - including the black rhino - remain endangered at roughly 5,000 individuals as of 2010.
Meanwhile, China has recently attempted to broadcast a harder stance against the flow of trafficked goods into the country, including the much-publicized destruction of an estimated $16 million in elephant ivory earlier this month. But while South Africa has signed agreements with China, Vietnam, and other countries aimed at curbing the trade, some environmentalists remain skeptical.
"The bottom line is South Africa's rhinos are up against the wall, facing a genuine crisis and agreements like these have to translate into meaningful action on the ground," Shaw said.