GENEVA (Reuters) - Poachers seeking horn for traditional medicines are driving once thriving populations of rhinos in Africa and Asia towards extinction, global nature protection groups said on Thursday.
In a report issued in Geneva, they said illegal slaughter of the already endangered animals is rising fast, with rates hitting a 15-year high amid stepped-up activities by Asian-based criminal gangs feeding the demand for horn.
"Illegal rhino horn trade to destinations in Asia is driving the killing, with growing evidence of involvement of Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai nationals in the illegal procurement and transport of the horn out of Africa," the report declared.
"Rhinos are in a desperate situation," said Susan Lieberman of the Swiss-based environmental body WWF-International, which issued the report together with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The report, presented to a meeting of the United Nations- sponsored CITES agency which works to prevent trade in endangered species, said South Africa and Zimbabwe were seeing a particular surge in poaching.
While between 2000 and 2005 a relatively low total of three rhinos were estimated to have been illegally killed each month in Africa out of a total population of some 18,000, 12 were now being slaughtered monthly in the two countries alone.
In India, 10 of the animals had been slaughtered for horn since January and at least 7 in Nepal, out of a total population for the two countries of just 2,400, the report said.
In many Asian countries, rhino horn has long been regarded as a vital ingredient in folk cures for many illnesses as well as for male sexual impotency, although medical specialists say it has no healing or potency powers.
Trade in any rhino parts is banned under the international CITES treaty, the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
But the WWF's Lieberman said the upsurge marks "the worst rhino poaching for many years" and represents a deadly threat to the animals' survival around the world.
It was time for governments "to crack down on organised criminal elements responsible for this trade, and to vastly increase assistance to (rhino) range countries in their enforcement efforts," she added.
Steve Broad, who heads the TRAFFIC network that works with WWF and IUCN in monitoring wildlife trade, said a lack of law enforcement and a low level of prosecutions of arrested poachers was making the situation worse.
"Increasingly daring attempts by poachers and thieves to obtain the horn is proving to be too much for rhinos, and some populations are seriously declining," he declared.