It is the new delicacy of choice among Vietnam’s high-rollers. When the young, fashionable and rich gather to party, they increasingly spice up their drink with a special ingredient: rhino horn powder.

These status-conscious hedonists include men who believe it can enhance their sexual performance. They apparently care little that their obsession could drive a glorious animal to extinction.

Between 1990 and 2005, poachers in South Africa killed an average of 14 rhinos a year. Since then the number has soared. In 2010, 333 rhinos were poached. In 2011, it was 448. So far this year, 339 rhinos have been killed, putting 2012 on course to be the deadliest since records began.

“Losing 500 a year, when it used to be 12 or 14 a year, is a crisis,” said Tom Milliken, east and southern Africa director of the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic. “Rhino horn is fetching the highest prices I’ve ever seen in my career.” A Traffic report, published last month, blames “a deadly combination of institutional lapses, corrupt wildlife industry professionals and Asian crime syndicates”. It identifies four main consumer groups fuelling the demand.

“Belief in rhino horn’s detoxification properties, especially following excessive intake of alcohol, rich food and ‘the good life’, has given rise to an affluent group of habitual users, who routinely mix rhino horn powder with water or alcohol as a general health and hangover-curing tonic,” the report said.

The notion that Asian traditional medicine used rhino horn as an aphrodisiac was a myth of the western media, Milliken said, but now, “rather incredibly”, it had been embraced by Vietnamese men. “The myth has come full circle.” A second group believe another myth: that rhino horn is a miracle cure for cancer. Milliken said: “We’ve had stories of rhino horn touts who go into cancer wards.” By monitoring online chat-rooms, Milliken and his team were able to identify a third group: middle-class and wealthy young mothers who keep rhino horn as a home preparation for high fever. Finally, there are those using it for expensive gifts to curry favour with elites or as an informal currency for luxury products.

South Africa has stepped up anti-poaching measures in Kruger national park and other game reserves, making 192 arrests this year. The Vietnamese government, however, is accused of not taking the crisis seriously, despite pressure from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

Vietnam is the only country in the world where rhino horn grinding bowls are mass produced. South Africa has an estimated 18,000 white rhinos and 1,195 black rhinos. Milliken warns that if the country loses more than 500 a year, the population will start shrinking by about 2018. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2012