The largest-ever seizure of smuggled rhino horn in Europe shows the "stark reality" of the threat facing rhinoceroses, conservationists have warned.
Wildlife campaigners said the latest seizure of 24 white rhino horns by the Czech Republic provided proof that South Africa's bid to begin a legal trade in the highly sought after product would be dangerous for Africa's rhinos.
Czech police said they had arrested 16 people and seized horns worth about £3.25 million, breaking up an international gang that was allegedly smuggling horns from Africa to Asia.
Officials said the gang hired Czech nationals who went to South Africa as hunters with permission to shoot one rhino, keeping the horn meant strictly as a personal trophy. The horns were then handed over to the gang to be smuggled to Asia.
At least 448 rhinos have been poached in South Africa since the beginning of the year and some 2,142 of the animals had been killed since 2008 in the country, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) said.
South Africa recently announced plans to apply to legally sell its stockpile of horns to address demand for rhino horn and prevent further poaching, at the next meeting of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 2016.
But conservationists are concerned that legal sales of products such as rhino horn or ivory fuel demand, providing an incentive for more poaching, and make it easier to sell illegal items.
Rhino horn has become more valuable by weight than gold, cocaine or heroin, amid rising demand from Asian countries such as Vietnam where it is used, despite no evidence, as a treatment for disease and even as a hangover cure.
IFAW's director of wildlife crime and consumer awareness programme Kelvin Alie said: "Illegal trade alone is nudging rhinos to extinction.
"The seizure of so many horns, and the arrest of so many people at one time, throws into stark reality the very real threat to rhino populations."