By Dinky Mkhize
PRETORIA (Reuters) - The number of rhinos poached for their horns in South Africa fell in 2015, the first decline since 2007, due to the higher rate of policing in national parks, the justice minister said on Thursday.
Poaching rates had surged from 83 in 2008 to a record 1,215 in 2014 to meet red-hot demand in newly-affluent Asian countries such as Vietnam, where the horn is prized as a key ingredient in traditional medicines.
Last year rhino poaching fell to 1,175 compared to 2014.
"I am today pleased to announce that for the first time in a decade - the poaching situation has stabilized," Justice Minister Michael Masutha told reporters in the capital Pretoria.
South Africa has more than 80 percent of the world's rhino population with about 18,000 white rhinos and close to 2,000 black rhinos.
Global trade in rhino horn is banned under the terms of a U.N. convention. Elsewhere in Africa elephant poaching for ivory has been rampant, with Asia also the main market for the illicit commodity.
Arrests for poaching increased to 317 from a revised 258 in 2014, Masutha said. The ministry stepped up inspections at airports and borders and also made use of technology to combat rhino poaching, he said.
The Kruger National Park, South Africa's main tourist draw, has been on the frontlines of the crisis as it borders Mozambique, one of the world's poorest countries where many of the poachers are based.
Rhino poaching numbers there stood at 826 by December, compared to 827 in 2014.
Kruger has the largest concentration of rhinos on the planet, with an estimated 8,400 to 9,300 white rhinos, about half of South Africa's population of the species.
Conservation group WWF said a decline in poaching numbers was encouraging but that there was "an alarming increase" in slayings in neighboring countries, targeting rhinos in previously secure areas such as Namibia and Zimbabwe.
"After seven years of increases, a decline in the rate of rhino poaching in South Africa is very encouraging... but sadly the overall rate remains unacceptably high," said Morné du Plessis, CEO of WWF South Africa.
(Writing by Ed Stoddard and Zandi Shabalala; Editing by James Macharia and Justin Palmer)