JOHANNESBURG (AP) -- A game reserve in Kenya plans to hold a memorial service next month for Anna Merz, a conservationist who sought to protect the rhinoceros from systematic poaching that has severely depleted its numbers in Africa.
Merz died in a South African hospital on April 4 at the age of 83, the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy said. It described her as a "visionary" who helped found the reserve, which has grown its rhino population despite increasing pressure from poachers that kill the animal for its horns.
Lewa holds more than 120 rhinos, constituting 11 percent and 14 percent of Kenya's black and white rhino populations respectively, according to the conservancy. In the 1980s, Merz and landowners David and Delia Craig founded the Ngare Sergoi Rhino Sanctuary, which later took the Lewa name.
Mike Watson, head of the conservancy near Mount Kenya, said in a statement this month that a memorial service will be held May 12 for Merz, author of "Rhino: At the Brink of Extinction."
He said a rhino calf was born in the reserve on the day of her death.
Also, a female rhino calf that was born this month and is living at a South Florida drive-through safari park was named Anna after Merz's death. It is one of the biggest attractions at the park.
"In recent years Anna had become increasingly concerned for the survivability of rhino as a species, experiencing firsthand in South Africa the devastation wreaked on rhino populations in her adopted country of residence," Watson said.
"Sadly we in Kenya have not been immune to the insatiable appetite for rhino horn in the Far East and Anna's beloved rhino here on Lewa have come under sustained pressure from criminal gangs intent on profiting at the cost of this iconic animal," he said.
The South African government said a record 668 rhinos were killed in the country in 2012, an increase of nearly 50 percent over the previous year. The rate of poaching so far this year suggests that the numbers of slain rhino in South Africa could exceed that of last year.
Demand is growing in Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia where rhino horn is believed to have medical benefits despite evidence to the contrary. The horn is made of keratin, a protein also found in human fingernails.
On April 18, Irish police and museum officials said masked men stole stuffed rhino heads containing eight valuable horns from the warehouse of Ireland's National Museum. The heist, linked to an Irish Gypsy gang that allegedly specializes in such raids across Europe, reflects the soaring prices that rhino horn fetches on the illegal market.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.