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Smuggled Rhino Horns Seized In Largest European Bust Ever, Worrying Conservationists

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The Czech Republic recently seized 24 illegal white rhino horns in the largest such smuggling operation ever busted in Europe, prompting conservationists to lament the stark reality of the animals' future.

Czech police arrested 16 alleged smugglers with horns valued at nearly $5 million, according to the Press Association. The news comes just weeks after South Africa announced a proposal to sell off some of the country's rhino horn stockpile, valued at more than $1 billion.

The country, home to 73 percent of the world's rhinos, said it would seek permission to sell the horns from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in 2016, according to Reuters. Edna Molewa, South Africa's environment minister, said the proceeds would be used to protect the species and deter black market sales.

514 rhinos have already been poached this year, according to the South African Department of Environmental Affairs, and 633 were killed in 2012.

Conservationists have lambasted the plan, worried that an influx of supply will only increase demand in some Asian countries where the horn is seen as a medicinal cure-all. There's no scientific evidence to back up the claim -- the horns are primarily made of the protein keratin, the same material as human fingernails -- but the demand in traditional medicine has led to steep prices and a kilogram of rhino horn can cost more than gold, selling for upwards of $65,000.

Environmentalists have begun to take increasingly strict measures to deter poaching, including a program that injects poison and bright pink dye into living rhinos' horns. India also announced plans to deploy drones over a reserve to protect one-horned rhinos earlier this year.

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