Calls for countries to show they are serious by jailing the crime bosses behind the ‘industrial-scale’ slaughter.

The northern white rhino is heading the way of the dinosaurs. With only five left on Earth - three in Kenya, one in America and one in the Czech Republic - extinction is now inevitable. It survived for millions of years, but could not survive mankind.

This is just one subspecies, but soon the planet's remaining 28,500 rhinos could be under threat from the illegal wildlife trade. Worth up to $24 billion a year, it has joined drugs, arms and human trafficking as one of the world's biggest crime rackets.

Ground zero in this "wildlife war" is Africa, and the conservationists are losing as animals are slaughtered on an industrial scale to meet demand for horn and ivory in newly affluent Asian countries. Urgent solutions will be debated this week in Kasane, Botswana, as politicians and environmentalists gather for a follow-up to last year's London conference on the crisis where 46 countries signed up to a "declaration" that promised to address corruption, adopt legislation for tougher penalties against poachers and recruit more law enforcement officers.

Despite a drive to raise awareness in China and Vietnam, where horn is coveted as an ingredient in traditional medicine or as a status symbol, a record 1215 rhinos were killed last year in South Africa, 20 per cent more than in 2013. At least 220 chimpanzees, 106 orangutans, 33 bonobos and 15 gorillas have been lost from the wild over the past 14 months, according to estimates by the Great Apes Survival Partnership. At least 20,000 elephants were poached annually from 2011 to 2013, according to the United Nations - although countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda have fought back with some success over the past year.

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Dr Patrick Bergin, chief executive of the African Wildlife Foundation, said: "The most concrete number is rhinos in South Africa. While that number is still going in the wrong direction, I don't think we can say we've turned the corner."

Arguably the biggest setback since the London conference has been the failure to arrest, prosecute and convict all but a handful of players in the transnational wildlife mafia. "We don't see people going to jail ... We need to see a preponderance of prosecutions and sentences handed down that sends a message to the traffickers that it's not worth the risk."

The concern is shared by Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network. Tom Milliken, its rhino programme coordinator, said: "In all of this, the judiciary in many countries is lagging behind the times ... Organised crime can have the best legal guns in the country and those involved in rhino crime are heavily lawyered up."

South Africa, which is home to 90 per cent of Africa's rhinos, has appointed a panel of 21 experts to examine the viability of a legal rhino horn trade. Milliken accused it of failing to show leadership or political will. "It has a very strong conservation record historically, but it is currently the epicentre of the rhino horn trade. We're starting to see greater evidence of internal corruption in South Africa that's aiding and abetting the trade."

Four out of five rhino poachers in South Africa come from neighbouring Mozambique, one of the world's poorest countries, where villagers are tempted by the promise of money. The scale of impunity was vividly illustrated when Bartholomaus Grill, a German journalist with Der Spiegel, went to Mozambique to investigate the supply chain from South Africa through middlemen to the horns' ultimate buyers in Vietnam. When he visited the home of a notorious poaching kingpin, Grill was taken hostage by an angry mob and threatened with death. The police appeared to be under the kingpin's thumb.

Just as South Africa is hardest hit by rhino poaching, Tanzania is losing more elephants than any other country: an estimated 10,000 in 2013. Yet Jakaya Kikwete, the President of Tanzania, has been praised for toughening law enforcement over the past year. In December, Feisal Ali Mohammed, an alleged organised crime boss and leading figure in the ivory trade, was arrested by Interpol agents in Dar es Salaam.

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, administrator of the UN Development Programme, visited the east African country after the London conference. "One of the things we were endeavouring to do in Tanzania was raise awareness among the judiciary of the seriousness of the crime and what this criminal trade is doing to Tanzania's prospects," she said last week. "You can do a calculation that shows that an elephant alive is worth a million dollars to the economy over the course of its life. An elephant dead gives some local - how much, a couple of hundred dollars, who knows? - which is big money for them but petty cash when it comes to overall benefits. It does require a lot of mobilisation of local communities around positive, constructive development to stop it; otherwise people go to the guys with guns and the money to get their income."

Politicians in Tanzania say they are aware of the need to tackle poverty. Minister January Makamba said: "The villages that surround these sanctuaries have to somehow be taken care of in a manner that people do not feel that 'we have to help poachers to poach so we can make a living'. The issues of poaching and logging are issues of governance and poverty. Corruption is the centre of it. You deal with corruption, you are halfway to dealing with the problem of poaching."

Last year, for the first time in years, a majority of illegal wildlife consignments were seized on African soil rather than by authorities overseas. Kenya - which has about 38,000 elephants today compared with 167,000 in 1973 - burned 15 tonnes of ivory to show opposition to the trade. Ethiopia followed suit, destroying its entire stockpile of ivory - an estimated 6.1 tonnes.

At the demand end, Thailand has introduced sweeping laws and regulations and launched a huge public campaign against ivory involving more than a million people. A recent survey found Chinese consumer awareness of the ivory and horn trade's impact on African wildlife has grown rapidly over the past two years after public awareness campaigns featuring celebrities.

Milliken was cautious. "We tend to think people will be moved by the same messages as us, but those messages could have the opposite effect. People want to demonstrate their wealth and status. If we say rhinos have rarity value, they could say, 'Look at me, I can get it'. The whole environmental community has to step back and ask, what are we trying to achieve? We have to get smarter and play a different game.. We can't just haul out Madonna and think that will solve everything."

- Observer