By Zimasa Mpemnyama
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Wildlife groups plan to relocate 80 rhinoceros from South Africa to Australia in a bid to prevent them being hunted to extinction, one of the project's leaders said on Friday.
Poaching is on the rise in Africa, driven by demand from China and Vietnam where rhino horn, used in traditional medicine, can sell for around $65,000 per kilogram, according to estimates by conservationists.
Around 1,300 rhino were killed illegally in Africa last year.
The Australian Rhino Project and South Africa's Elephants, Rhinos and People (ERP) plan to begin relocating the animals this year to establish an "insurance population".
If the project is successful, more rhinos could be flown to other "safe havens" in Texas and Florida.
"Poachers will go where it is easy to poach. It is easier to poach rhinos in Africa than in Australia or America," ERP Director Wouter van Hoven told Reuters.
"It's not that we want to get the rhinos out of Africa but we need to put some rhinos into a safe deposit box."
The rhinos will be repatriated to their natural African habitat once the population numbers have grown and levels of demand for animal horn falls, the groups said.
Conservationists and private game reserve owners have criticized the South African government for not doing enough to protect rhinos from powerful poaching and smuggling syndicates.
South Africa, home to around 80 percent of the world's rhino, decided this week not to push for an end to a global ban on buying and selling rhino horn.
Animal reserve owners say a legal trade could help save the rhinos by using the proceeds for conservation.
"Now that the green light has been given to the criminals to continue poaching ... the rhinos are going to be much worse off," Chairman of the Private Rhino Owner's Association Pelham Jones said.
Rhinoceros' horns grow back if cut from a living animal, but the process has been criticized by animal rights groups and opponents of legalizing the trade say it would legitimize and encourage the use of material from endangered animals.
(Editing by Joe Brock and Robin Pomeroy)