Rhino roams Kruger National Park. Photo: Steve Botha, via Kruger National Park

Despite stepped-up efforts to combat rhino poaching in South Africa, the slaughter of the beleaguered animals continues at an alarming pace.

Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa told reporters this week that 749 rhinos have been poached through August 27.

That pace represents a 5-percent increase over the same period last year, when a record 1,215 rhinos were poached for their ivory horns, which are sold as powder predominantly in Vietnam and China.

Of the 749 rhinos, 544 were poached in vast Kruger National Park, which is the country's most famous wildlife reserve and home to the most rhinos. Kruger National Park spans borders Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

There is no bright side to this tragic story, but Molewa also announced that arrests in Kruger National Park are well ahead of last year's pace–138 so far, compared to 81 arrests at this time last year. But, he added, “The problem of people attempting to poach our rhinos is intensifying.”

Conservation groups fear the iconic animals are on the road to extinction in South Africa, which boasts the world's largest population of rhinos (about 23,000).

Earlier this year, Save the Rhino stated on its website, "If the killing continues at this rate, we could see rhino deaths overtaking births in 2016-2018, meaning rhinos could go extinct in the very near future."

Rhino horn has no proven scientific medical benefits, but consumers believe powdered horn will ward off cancer and cure other ailments. Wealthier consumers keep rhino horn on hand as a status symbol.

The poachers operate with high-tech methods funded by crime syndicates.

Last year in South Africa, a rhino was poached every eight hours.

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