Rhino with no horn

Rhino poachers cut the horns off their prey to sell them on the black market. In the most brutal cases, the rhinos are alive during this painful process. (South Africa National Parks)

The rhino is on the run.

Rhinoceros carcasses lie strewn across the South African savanna like great felled travellers from a prehistoric time. Their faces are blunted and hacked away by poachers who can earn unimagined riches from a single horn.

The lucky animals are killed outright, not left to drown in their own blood. 

The brutality of the trade is matched only by demand in the Far East for so-called miracle cures made from ground rhino horn. 

Long a favoured ingredient in traditional Chinese medicines, rhino horn has been turned into a status symbol by the new moneyed classes. 

'This is almost a poachers' supermarket where they come for rhino horn...' – Maj.-Gen. Johan Jooste on South Africa's Kruger National Park 

"The last caches are in Africa and specifically in South Africa" says Maj.-Gen. Johan Jooste. 

"This is almost a poachers' supermarket where they come for rhino horn — rhino horn right now being the most expensive commodity on the planet, gram for gram."

Criminal syndicates trading in rhino horn can get up to $60,000 US per kilogram.

Kruger Park Rangers on patrol

Rangers at South Africa's Kruger National Park compare their fight against poachers to a war. They say the poachers they face come from a variety of backgrounds and include former soldiers, making them hard to defeat. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

Jooste was drafted into Kruger National Park three years ago to lead the fight against poaching, an effort he is waging with military precision.  Kruger is 20,000 square km, and it is losing an average of three rhinos a day to poaching. 

Jooste's rangers, trained in conservation, find themselves involved in a quasi-war. 

"You can't get used to it…because every day you are chasing different [kinds] of people," says Samuel Madalene who works with a dog tracking unit at Kruger.

"Some are heavily armed. Some are ex-soldiers. So it's different."

War is a word used repeatedly by just about every actor in the struggle to save the rhino. 

"You have to prepare yourself for war and conflict because that's what it is," says Simon Naylor, chief conservationist at a private game reserve called And Beyond Phinda in KwaZulu Natal.

"We're having conflict here. You have to prepare yourself for gun battles and you have to prepare yourself that people might and are losing their lives." 

'You have to prepare yourself for war and conflict because that's what it is.' – Simon Naylor, chief conservationist at And Beyond Phinda game reserve 

The Phinda reserve has about 200 rhinos, most white, but black as well. 

It spends around $20,000 US a month on security, which includes paying informants. 

"A lot of our arrest successes have been intelligence-driven, so getting information and then acting on that information before an incident happens." 

Rhino horns seized in Czech Republic

The poachers pillaging South Africa's rhino population are driven by the high sums rhino horns can fetch on the black market. The demand is highest in Asia, where it's widely believed the horns possess medicinal properties. (David W. Cerny/Reuters )

The reserve also invests heavily in community development, building schools and medical clinics, says Naylor. The goodwill helps create a buffer, he says, between the poachers and the reserve. 

But it's clearly a constant struggle. Conservationists are moving to protect the rhinos' gene pool, moving animals into protective zones and in some cases preparing to airlift rhinos to neighbouring Botswana, which has much tougher anti-poaching laws. 

Other proposals, such as legalizing the trade in rhino horn in a bid to flood the market and reduce demand, create division among the protectors of the rhino. 

"Right now we try our best to stop the killing," says Naylor. "Unfortunately it seems to be escalating so whatever solutions we do find [have] to be quick because we don't have a lot of time left."