NAIROBI (Reuters) - Better surveillance and stiffer penalties must be imposed to combat rhino poaching in Africa, which if left unchecked could see the species become extinct in the wild by 2025, regional conservation officials said on Tuesday.
The world's rhino population has declined 90 percent since 1970, conservationists estimate. On the African continent, there are some 20,150 white rhinos that are near threatened and 4,840 black rhinos that are critically endangered.
"We've certainly reached a tipping point in rhino populations. There is no way that our national populations can sustain the level of poaching," Pelham Jones, chairman of the South Africa Private Rhino Owners Association, told Reuters on the sidelines of a conservation summit in Nairobi.
"What I've seen in the past is that many politicians ... have solidly got their heads in the sand ... The attitude of saying that there is no crisis is a statement of denial. There is a crisis," Jones said.
Last year, 448 rhinos were poached in South Africa alone, a 33 percent increase compared to the year before, driven by high demand from Asian countries where the rhino horn is purported to cure cancer. Scientists have widely dismissed the assertion.
South Africa is home to more than 90 percent of Africa's rhino population.
The price of rhinoceros horn has soared to $50,000 per kg, higher than the price of gold, the summit, hosted by the African Wildlife Foundation, said.
Julius Kipng'etich, director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, said prevention was key, but if rhino were killed the poachers must be hunted down and investigations carried out.
Kenya has already killed six poachers so far in 2012 hunting for elephant, buffalo and rhinos, compared to an average of six poachers per year over the past three years.
The two-day summit brought together representatives from Botswana, Kenya, South Africa, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe as well as the United States.
The summit called for more advanced communication technology, vehicles and helicopters to help anti-poaching units as poachers resort to more sophisticated methods to kill rhinos.
In 2009, nearly 70 percent of illegally killed rhinos were shot, but methods such as the use of poison and immobilising drugs are now being used to avoid detection.
The conference also recommended harsher penalties be imposed on the illegal trade coupled with improved detection by using sniffer dogs at airports.
"And then of course ... the consuming countries must be educated because the myths around rhino horn is just ridiculous," Kipng'etich said.
Rhino poaching has surged since 2007, in part as a growing affluent class in countries such as Vietnam and Thailand spend more on rhino horn for traditional medicine.
Rhino horn has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine, where it was ground into a powder and often mixed with hot water to treat a variety of maladies including rheumatism, gout, high fever and even devil possession.
"When you talk about rhino horn, what drives it? It used to be an aphrodisiac. But because Viagra came, that has now been dropped. (Now they say it cures) cancer, you see how the criminals change tune?" Kipng'etich said.