South Africa plans to evacuate hundreds of rhino from the famed Kruger National Park to safe havens beyond horn smugglers' reach, the environment minister announced Tuesday.
"A decision has been made on this issue of translocation," Edna Molewa said, announcing an action plan to curb escalating illegal hunts for rhino horn.
"Relocations from the Kruger National Park and the creation of rhino strongholds could allow the total rhino population size of South Africa to continue to grow," she said.
The authorities "could relocate up to 500" rhino, which can weigh a tonne or more, said South African National Parks ecologist Sam Ferreira.
Illegal rhino killings have spiked from 13 in 2007 to 1,004 last year, steadily increasing despite the deployment of soldiers in the vast nature reserve, which is roughly the size of Wales or Israel.
The animals' horns -- made from the same material as finger nails -- are coveted in some Asian countries as a traditional medicine and as a status symbol.
There are thought to be as few as 8,400 white rhino and around 2,000 black rhino left in Kruger Park, which has been hardest hit by poaching, though other national parks and private reserves have also fallen prey.
Now some rhino will be moved from areas of high poaching activity inside the Kruger -- such as the eastern boundary which forms the border with Mozambique.
Most poachers are thought to be recruited from the impoverished neighbouring country by middlemen who send the horns on through organised crime syndicates.
The relocated rhino will find new homes in other state-owned provincial parks, private parks and communal areas.
Neighbouring countries are also being considered as hosts, according to the environmental ministry.
There is no timeframe yet for the mass operation.
"We are looking at capturing about six to eight animals a day in the cooler months," said the national parks head of veterinary services Markus Hofmeyer.
The summer season returns to the country in the latter part of the year, suggesting the moves might only be on the cards in the southern hemisphere autumn next April.
Authorities spend about $2,000 (1,600 euros) to track and catch a rhino, said Hofmeyer. Fees include helicopters, drugs and personnel, but exclude transporting the animal.
"The cost implications vary," he said.
- 'Entrenched problems' -
A year ago the government gave the green light to studies exploring the possibility of legal trade in rhino horn.
No decision has been taken on the matter.
South Africa has more than 18 tons of rhino horn stockpiles, according to figures given by the department of environmental affairs in 2013.
In April, a safe owned by a regional parks agency was broken into, and around 40 rhino horns were stolen, raising fresh questions about the illicit trade.
Journalist Julian Rademeyer, author of the book on rhino poaching "Killing for Profit", said it had been clear for a long time the relocations would happen.
"It was something that had to be done given the entrenched problems," he said, referring to failed efforts to curb poaching.
"It harkens back to some of the plans in the 1960s and 1970s that were instrumental in bringing the white rhino population back from extinction," he told AFP.
The country has also relocated 1,450 rhino from the park in the past 15 years.
But Rademeyer warned that while breaking up the population would make it harder for poachers to find the animals, there would always be illegal hunters from poverty-stricken areas around nature reserves like in Mozambique.
"You're dealing with communities where there are very few opportunities, where corruption is rife, places that are steady recruitment grounds," he said.
"The social problems that are helping to foster this situation and that are providing poor people that serve as poachers... aren't going to go away."
Courts have handed stiff sentences to poachers, but police rarely catch the masterminds behind the illegal hunting and trade.