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Rhino slaughter in South Africa sets savage pace: 455 so far this year

A rhino orphanage has opened in South Africa's northern province of Limpopo -- the first of its kind in the world. NBC's Rohit Kachroo reports. 

Poachers have killed 455 rhinos so far this year in South Africa -- more than half in a single national park -- topping last year’s mark of 448, South Africa announced this week. The rhinos are killed for their horns, which fetch thousands of dollars and are ground up as a purported treatment for illnesses and hangovers.

Kruger National Park, the crown jewel of the country's park system, saw 272 killings, South African National Parks said in a report Tuesday.

The World Wildlife Fund urged South Africa to provide more on-the-ground protection and to press Vietnam, which has become the main destination for rhino horns.

"WWF is concerned that the memorandum of understanding with Vietnam for collaborative action against illegal rhino horn trade remains unsigned," Jo Shaw, the group's rhino coordinator in South Africa, said in a statement. "There is also an urgent need for law enforcement actions by neighboring countries which are implicated as transit routes for illegal trade in rhino horn, specifically Mozambique."

The group did praise South Africa for a spike in poaching arrests, but added that a key test will be what happens in a trial that begins Friday.

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In South Africa, home to three quarters of the last remaining rhinos on the planet, a spike in rhino poaching is threatening the white rhino's survival. Rising demand for the lucrative rhino horn in places such as Vietnam has led to a drastic increase in poaching. Traditional medicine systems in Asia promote the horn as having special healing powers. Gram for gram, rhino horn is more valuable on the black market in Asia than cocaine or gold. More than 400 rhinos were killed last year in South Africa, leaving conservationists, security forces and private game reserve owners scrambling to protect the animal. Harry Smith reports. 

Dubbed the "Groenewald Gang," a safari tour operator, veterinarians, professional hunters and a helicopter pilot face charges related to the killing of 20 rhinos. 

"The world is watching to see that South Africa is prepared to prosecute rhino crimes to the fullest extent of the law and take these crimes seriously as an affront to South Africa’s national heritage," Shaw said.

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Poaching of rhino horns and elephant tusks has increased across Africa and Asia as demand has risen in recent years.

In South Africa, just 13 rhinos were slaughtered in 2007, followed by 83 in 2008. The number has steadily increased since then.

Shaw noted that while "more rhinos are being born than are dying" in South Africa, that could change. "We are approaching the critical tipping point where rhino numbers go into decline and would undermine conservation efforts."

Related: Rhino slaughter tied to Vietnam

Africa is home to two rhino species: the black and the white rhino. 

South Africans are waging a desperate battle against rhino poachers. Anti-poaching patrol units are using deadly force in public parks. DNA samples are being taken of rhino horns to trace them on the Asian black market. Private game reserve owners have made the tough decision to pre-emptively dehorn their rhinos to try to thwart poachers. Harry Smith reports on the temporary solutions South Africans are implementing to protect the rhino from poachers.

White rhinos had declined to fewer than 12,000 in 2001, but conservation efforts have increased that to 20,000, WWF noted.

The black rhino population dropped to around 2,000 in the 1990s, but has recovered to around 4,800. As recently as the 1960s, 65,000 black rhinos roamed Africa, WWF said. 

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