Rhinoceros horns have become more valuable than gold, and the animals themselves are paying the price. Poaching is soaring in South Africa — home to about 90% of Africa’s rhino population — with 455 animals killed this year, according to a new report by the South African government.
The growth in demand is largely due to the rhino horn’s supposed healing properties; in traditional Chinese medicine it’s believed to cure cancer, although no scientific study has ever substantiated that claim.
Just a decade ago, only 15 animals were slaughtered in South Africa. Now, according to Reuters, international crime syndicates supply poachers with military-grade weapons, night-vision goggles and even helicopters in the hunt for rhino horns that can fetch up to $65,000 a kg on the street.
The market for the horns has spread throughout China, Vietnam and Thailand, where decades of economic growth have fueled a class of wealthy Asian consumers eager to pay top dollar for traditional cures.
Kruger National Park, a 7,500-square-mile animal reserve in South Africa, has seen the most poaching action, with over half the rhinos killed in 2012 occurring within its borders. The government has recently deployed soldiers and surveillance aircraft to help save the rhinos.
There are estimated to be 20,000 rhinos living in South Africa at the moment; according to the conservation group Save the Rhino, there are no more than 29,000 in existence worldwide.