By Sophie Morlin-Yron
2013's illegal rhino slaughter in South Africa was the biggest ever. The population of the critically endangered black rhinos is now near the tipping point with only just over 4,000 animals left in the wild.
A record 1,004 rhinos were killed in 2013, an average of three animals every day, according to figures released by the South African Department of Environmental Affairs.
Kruger National Park, home to South Africa's largest population of black rhinos and white rhinos, was hardest hit, with poachers killing 606 rhinos within the famous safari destination last year.
The 2013 figure represents a 50% increase on 2012, and more than double the number slaughtered in 2011. But the reason remained the same - huge profits are to be made from the illegal international trade in rhino horn.
Rhino poaching on the rise
Over the past few years, rhino poaching has risen across Africa. According to TRAFFIC, an organization that tracks wildlife trade, it is carried out by sophisticated transnational criminal networks.
Rhino horn is a traditional ingredient in Asian medicine. Although there is no medical proof, it's believed the horns can cure cancer. Whole rhino horns are in high demand in the Middle East as handles for prestige daggers.
TRAFFIC's rhino expert, Tom Milliken, says: "South Africa and Mozambique must decisively up their game if they hope to stop this blatant robbery of southern Africa's natural heritage ... 2014 must mark the turning point where the world collectively says 'enough is enough' and brings these criminal networks down."
The Black rhinos are considered "critically endangered" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Wildlife experts estimate that only 4,240 black rhinos remain in the wild.
White rhinos are classified as "near-threatened". IUCN estimates their wild population at 20,150.
Jo Shaw, rhino programme manager at WWF South Africa (WWF-SA) says the criminal networks behind poaching "are threatening our national security and damaging our economy by frightening away tourists.
"Rhino poaching and rhino horn trafficking are not simply environmental issues, they represent threats to the very fabric of our society".
WWF-SA says the increase in poaching is bringing South Africa's rhino population "ever closer to the tipping point when deaths outnumber births and they go into serious decline".
Action on the ground needed to turn the crisis around
In December 2012, South Africa and Vietnam signed a memorandum of understanding on tackling wildlife trafficking between the two nations, and later developed a joint rhino action plan.
South Africa signed a similar agreement with China in 2013, and is developing others with Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Hong Kong.
South Africa is also due to sign a memorandum of understanding with neighbouring Mozambique, which borders the Kruger National Park and serves as a transit point for rhino horn exiting Africa.
Global summit in London
Next month, heads of state from around 50 countries will meet at a global summit in London to discuss issues surrounding the illegal trade of endangered animals such as rhinos and elephants.
The summit will seek commitment from key governments to combat the growing global threat posed by the $19bn-a-year illegal trade.
Since 2008, 2,778 rhinos have been poached in South Africa, and the slaughter continues. Another 37 of the iconic animals have already been killed since 1 January this year.