By Ed Stoddard
PRETORIA (Reuters) - South Africa said on Thursday that it had moved around 100 rhinos to unspecified neighboring states as part of efforts to stem the illicit slaughter of the animals for their horns.
Home to around 80 percent of the global rhino population, South Africa is at the epicenter of a poaching crisis. Government figures released on Thursday show the country lost a record 1,215 rhinos last year, about a 20 percent increase on the 2013 toll, with 49 slain so far this year.
The animals are being poached to meet soaring demand for rhino horn, coveted as an ingredient in traditional medicine in fast-growing economies such as China and Vietnam.
South Africa said in August that it planned to relocate rhinos from poaching "hot spots" in the famed Kruger National Park, where about two-thirds of the killings take place.
Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa told a news briefing that for security reasons, the precise countries where the rhinos had been moved would not be named.
Conservationists have said Botswana is a likely candidate as it is vast, sparsely populated and has had little poaching. Mozambique, one of the world's poorest countries where many of the poachers hail from, would almost certainly be off the list.
Molewa said that 56 of the animals had been moved within the Kruger itself, which is the size of Israel, from danger zones to an "intensive protection zone."
In 2015, another 200 rhinos will be moved from Kruger to what Molewa said were "strongholds" where the animals will be safer from poaching. Kruger's rhino population is around 9,000.
Twenty bids have been received to purchase the animals and are being evaluated. The money raised will be put back into conservation projects.
Private ranchers own around 5,000 of South Africa's roughly 20,000 rhinos, part of a thriving game farming industry in Africa's most advanced economy catering to eco-toursim and hunting.
Rhino horn -- the sale of which is strictly prohibited -- is estimated by conservationists to be worth around $65,000 a kg, more than gold or platinum, and so 25 tonnes could fetch an estimated $1.6 billion.
(Editing by James Macharia)