By Christine Dell'Amore
For South Africa's white rhinos, 2013 was perhaps the worst year in modern history.
One thousand and four animals were killed by poachers, the highest since record keeping began in the early 1900s, according to the South African Department of Environmental Affairs.
That's also 1.5 times as high as 2012, when 668 white rhinos were slaughtered for their horns, which are highly coveted as luxury items in parts of Asia. (Related: "Why African Rhinos Are Facing a Crisis.")
"Ultimately that should be the solution to the rhino-poaching crisis." (Also see "Rhino Hunt Permit Auction Sets Off Conservation Debate.")
Such escalated poaching has pushed the southern white rhino to near threatened status, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and soon poaching rates will exceed the number of new rhinos born, said Richard Thomas, global communications coordinator for TRAFFIC, a wildlife-trade monitoring network.
"Things really aren't getting better, despite the [seven] years this crisis has been going on," Thomas said. (From our blog: "South African Rhino Poaching Hits New High [2013\.")
"It really does call for some major action."
We talked to Thomas about the main takeaways from the report.
Why is this happening?
For one, there's new evidence that poachers are using neighboring Mozambique as an operational base, both for entering South Africa to kill the animals and for smuggling out their horns, Thomas said. (See a map of the international illegal trade in rhinos.)
The poachers aren't just local, either: They're often part of powerful, organized crime networks that have been linked to other illegal activities, such as drugs, weapons, and human trafficking, worldwide.
The criminals sell the horns in markets in Vietnam and China, where they are used by the growing wealthy class as health tonics and status symbols.
Likewise, demand for the horns is only increasing.
What needs to be done next?
First, Mozambique needs to step up its penalties for wildlife crime, where it's now only a misdemeanor. (Read "Rhino Wars" in National Geographic magazine.)
What's more, there needs to be better enforcement action on the ground, including more rangers and other initiatives such as detection dogs, which can sniff out endangered species in border crossings and airports.
Perhaps the most important is a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species-led effort to curtail demand of rhino horn in Vietnam, Thomas said.
That means not only raising awareness through education of the impact on rhinos but also changing attitudes around rhino horns so that it "becomes uncool and no longer a fashionable item," he said.
Can that really work?
There is historical evidence that you can change attitudes toward certain products, Thomas said.
Take elephant ivory in Japan: It was once a luxury item, but thanks in part to widespread awareness of elephant poaching, it's now no longer popular in the country.
Thomas believes that for rhinos, "eventually we will see that change—but it has got to happen sooner rather than later."