Oct 12, 2013 12:38 PM by CNN
(CNN) -- D-Day for rhinos is 2026, according to South African officials -- the year the majestic mammals will near extinction if current poaching rates continue.
"It's not that far away, it's around the corner," cautions Edna Molewa, minister of water and environmental affairs in South Africa, the country where about 75% of the world's rhinos are found. "It's scary -- I don't want us to get to that point," she adds. "We don't really want to be caught napping."
Decimated by illegal poaching, the endangered rhino has increasingly come under attack in recent years. In South Africa alone, some 480 rhinos have been killed since January, while last year there were 668 slaughters, a nearly 50% jump compared to 2011.
The alarming surge in rhino killings has been fueled by unsubstantiated beliefs in southeast Asia that their horns can treat all kinds of conditions, from hangovers to cancers. Buyers in countries such as Vietnam and China are willing to pay big sums for traditional cures and this has helped create a lucrative poaching market, which is often run by sophisticated criminal syndicates.
No time to waste
But now the South African government wants to cripple that black market by launching a legal once-off sale of part of its billion-dollar stockpile of rhino horns. It plans to put forward a proposal at the next Conference of Parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, in 2016, requesting the removal of a decades-old ban on rhino horn trade.
"We think that this is probably one of the measures that can actually help us alleviate this problem," Molewa told CNN.
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With South Africa sitting on a stockpile of more than 16,400 kilograms of rhino horn, proponents of the auction argue that the move could have an immediate impact on the fight against rampant poaching.
The government's thinking is that it can flood the market by selling stockpiled horn and regulating trade. The move, advocates say, would send the current sky-high prices tumbling, thus remove the incentives for poaching, and ultimately help prevent further mass killings of the species.