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Prince William helps save the rhinos (PHOTOS)

Prince William called the illegal trade in rhino horns "ignorant, selfish and utterly wrong," and warned that rhinos could become extinct due to poaching.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The Duke of Cambridge, better known as Prince William, has spoken out about the rhino poaching epidemic in Africa.

Prince William told the BBC he developed a love for rhinos after helping to hand rear them at a friend's game reserve in Kenya.

But one of those he fed, a rhino named Max, was killed this year by poachers.

"Sadly, he ran into the wrong people and he is now on someone's mantelpiece somewhere probably," he said in an interview with the British broadcaster.

More from GlobalPost: Last Rhino Standing: A special report on the rhino poaching crisis

The brutal killing of rhinos is fueled by the soaring demand for their horns in China and particularly Vietnam, where rhino horn is now more expensive than gold.

Vietnam's newly rich buy rhinoceros horn, most of it from rhinos killed by poachers in South Africa, as a cure for cancer, fever — or even just a hangover.

Prince William said the illegal trade in rhino horns was "ignorant, selfish and utterly wrong," and warned that rhinos are being slaughtered at such a rate they could soon be extinct.

"Along with elephants, they're two of the most heavily poached animals currently in the world," Prince William told the BBC.

"If we don't do something about them, it's going to be a tragic loss for everyone."

More from GlobalPost: South African police seize $7 million in assets from suspected rhino poachers

Prince William is the royal patron of wildlife charity the Tusk Trust, and has backed a program run by the Aspinall Foundation, another conservation group, to return three rare black rhinos born in captivity in the UK to the wilds of Tanzania.

The rhinos have arrived at their new home in Mkomazi National Park in northern Tanzania, where they are under the constant protection of armed guards.

South Africa, which is home to 21,000 black and white rhinos, or about 80 percent of the world's rhino population, has seen a dramatic rise in poaching in the last five years.

While just 13 rhinos were killed illegally in 2007, a record 448 were killed by poachers in 2011.

So far this year, 245 rhinos have been killed by poachers in South Africa, according to figures released last week. The famous Kruger National Park remains the hardest hit by poachers, having lost 147 of the 245 rhinos.

More from GlobalPost: South Africa's rhino wars