South Africa is investigating dehorning its rhino population and stopping legal trophy hunts to fight a poaching crisis that has killed 279 animals this year, the environment minister said Monday.
Officials are considering putting a moratorium on rhino hunting to deal with abuses in the allocation of permits, which were issued to around 130 people last year and some 140 this year, Edna Molewa told reporters.
"Illegal hunting and abuse of (the) permit system may be the main threats that could impact on the survival of rhinos in the wild in the near future," the minister said.
The ministry has also commissioned a study to look at the possibility of removing rhinos' horns, to deter poachers selling to the lucrative Asian blackmarket.
"We haven't said that we are going to dehorn. The dehorning possibility impact study has been initiated and will be concluded in the next three months," said Molewa.
South Africa allows a limited number of legal hunts per year which are mostly of white rhinos, which number around 18,800, and allocates five permits per year for the critically endangered black rhino.
Legal trophy hunts drew 49 million rands ($6.9 million, 4.8 million euros) in revenue in 2009, said Molewa, speaking in Pretoria via a video link.
To address abuse of permits, officials are already planning to require provincial officials to supervise hunts and the collection of post-kill DNA samples.
"We are saying that we will do everything in our power to deal with this scourge of rhino poaching," the minister said.
But she said that any moratorium would not be within a year.
Molewa said her ministry is also commissioning a study into the viability of legalising the trade in rhino horn, which is internationally banned.
Poaching wiped out 333 rhinos last year in South Africa, up from 13 in 2007.
The army was deployed in April in the hard hit Kruger National Park, which has lost 169 rhinos this year, and armed soldiers have brought down poaching fatalities but have pushed hunters onto private reserves.
"The number of incidents have decreased quite tremendously and that has resulted in the displacement of poaching activities to other areas," said David Mabunda, South African National Parks (SANParks) chief executive.
A poaching spike in 2008 was related to stories such as rhino horn being a cure for cancer as claimed by a Vietnamese cabinet minister, alongside increased demand from Asia with Vietnam a conduit, he said.
By end 2007, South Africa had conserved 35% of Africa's black rhino population, which now number around 2,200, and 93% of white rhinos.
The UN wildlife trade regulator this month called for stiffer penalties for poachers, with the price of a rhino horn per kilo fetching around $50,000.