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Rhino poaching in South Africa lower in 2015. A turning point?

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Mike Hutchings/Reuters/File

(Read caption) A White Rhino and her calf walk in the dusk light in Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa's North West Province. 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.

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The number of rhinos killed by poachers in South Africa declined marginally in 2015 from the previous year, according to figures released by the government, reversing an increase in killings each year since 2007.

A total of 1,215 rhinos were killed in 2014, due to the high demand of rhino horns in China, Vietnam, and other Asian nations. In 2015, the figure slightly dropped to 1,175, a mark that was hailed as an improvement by environment officials.

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“Considering that this is in the face of a relentless rise of poaching activity into protected areas, this is good news,” said Edna Molewa, Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, according to the Guardian.

Some conservationists, however, believe that the number of rhinos killed in 2015 is actually higher than that cited by the government. Allison Thomson told The Associated Press, "The stats do not reflect the collateral damage of rhinos that died subsequent to being a victim of an attempted poaching and all the carcasses that lie in the bush yet to be found.”

Other conservationists are concerned the anti-poaching efforts in South Africa could be driving poachers to neighboring countries, such as Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Zambia. The number of rhinos killed in Namibia rose from 25 in 2014 to 80, while the number doubled to 50 in Zimbabwe, the Los Angeles Times reported. The three countries are home approximately 95 percent of the rhinos in Africa. Eighty percent live in South Africa. In 2015, a total of 1,305 rhinos were killed across Africa.

"The threat seems to be spreading across the region and you would expect that. It's like a bubble. If you squeeze hard in one area, it will bulge in another area," Jo Shaw, rhino program manager at the World Wildlife Fund in Johannesburg told the Times. "This is why we need to treat the problem systemically. You can throw lots of money and time and effort into field security in priority rhino sites and we have to do that. But ultimately, it is just going to shift the pressure elsewhere."

Anti-poaching campaigns have slowly been gaining momentum, with donations from international conservationists that are focused on public awareness, especially in China and Vietnam where rhino horns are considered status symbol, and used in traditional medicine and as a recreational drug.

Last week Richard Branson, in a joint venture with conservation groups WildAid and the African Wildlife Foundation, launched a campaign focused on educating people that rhino horns are made from keratin, the same material found in human hair, and fingernails, the Guardian reported.

The campaigns face a threat from a group of private rhino owners in South Africa, who have have been pushing the government to allow them grow and harvest horns, a move that they argue will help in protecting the rhinos from being killed.

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White rhinos are currently classified as a threatened species, while the rarer black rhino is endangered, the Los Angeles Times reports.