By Ed Stoddard
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The number of rhinos poached for their horns in South Africa fell 10 percent in 2016 to 1,054, the second straight year of decline according to government data released on Monday, but conservationists said the levels remain alarming.
Rhino poaching rates in South Africa 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.
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, which is why it has been at the frontline of the horn poaching crisis.
In the Kruger National Park, the epicenter of the slaughter, 662 rhino carcasses were found in 2016, an almost 20 percent fall from 826 in 2015, South Africa's environmental ministry said in a statement.
"This decrease can be attributed to the efforts of our men and women on the ground, especially our rangers," the ministry said.
It said the fall in poaching levels came despite an increase in criminal activity in the Kruger.
"For 2016 there were a staggering 2,883 instances of poaching-related activities in the park, compared to 2,466 recorded in the same period in 2015."
Those activities included poaching camps, contacts, crossings, sightings, tracks and shots fired.
"These criminal gangs are armed to the teeth, well-funded and part of transnational syndicates who will stop at nothing to get their hands on rhino horn," the ministry said.
It noted, however, that outside of Kruger and the Mpumalanga province which borders it, the number of rhinos killed had increased in some provinces.
Global trade in rhino horn is banned by a U.N. convention.
"Rhino poaching figures remain unacceptably high," TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, said in a statement.
“It's simply not possible to regard the sustained poaching of three rhinos each and every day as anything less than a continuation of the crisis,” said Tom Milliken, TRAFFIC’s Rhino Programme Leader.
In another worrying development, 46 elephants were poached in Kruger in 2016 for the ivory contained in their tusks. A few years ago elephant poaching was virtually unheard of in Kruger.
Tens of thousands of elephants have been poached elsewhere in Africa in recent years for ivory, a coveted commodity in markets such as China.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)