JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Africa’s biggest animals were poached in near record numbers in 2012, with surging demand for horn and ivory from Asia driving the slaughter of rhinos and elephants.
By mid-December, poachers had killed 633 rhinos in South Africa, according to environment ministry figures.
That marks a new annual peak in the country that is home to most of the continent’s rhinos, and a sharp rise from the record 448 poached last year and the mere handful of deaths recorded a decade ago.
Elsewhere in Africa, the slaughter of elephants continued unabated, with mass killings reported in Came-roon and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
According to conservation group TRAFFIC, which monitors global trade in animals and plants, the amount of ivory seized will likely drop from 2011, when a record number of big hauls were made globally. But the trend remains grim.
“It looks like 2012 is another bumper year for trade in illegal ivory, though it is unlikely to top 2011,” said Tom Milliken, who manages TRAFFIC’s Elephant Trade Information System.
In 2011, an estimated 40 tonnes of illegal ivory was seized worldwide, representing thousands of dead elephants. So far this year, about 28 tonnes has reportedly been seized, but the number is expected to climb as more data comes in.
“The last four years since 2009 are four of our five highest-volume years in illegal ivory trade,” Milliken said.
Demand for ivory as ornamental items is rising fast in Asia, in tandem with growing Chinese influence and investment in Africa, which has opened the door wider for illicit trade in elephants and other animals.
Rhino horn has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine, where it was ground into powder to treat a range of maladies including rheumatism, gout and even possession by devils.
Ivory smuggling has also been linked to conflict, and last week the United Nations Security Council called for an investigation into the alleged involvement in the trade of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda.
Led by warlord Joseph Kony, who is being hunted by an African Union and U.S.-backed military force, the army is accused of terrorizing the country’s north for over 20 years through the abduction of children to use as fighters and sex slaves.
“The illegal killings of large numbers of elephants for their ivory are increasingly involving organized crime and in some cases well-armed rebel militias,” the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora said in a statement this week.
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