HOEDSPRUIT, SOUTH AFRICA —
2013 was a very bad year for South African rhinos with almost 1,000 animals killed for their horns. That death toll is 50 percent higher than in 2012 - despite a more concerted international fight against poaching and an international trade ban that has been in place for decades.
South Africa is home to more than 25,000 rhinos, roughly 80 percent of the world's rhinoceros population. But with their horns more valuable than gold in Asia markets, this ancient species is losing the fight against possible extinction.
"It's a national treasure for us [in South Africa]. That's why it is so important for us to protect these guys," said Park Ranger C.J. Lombard.
He and his tracker Patrick Moyane are out on another game drive looking for rhinoceros.
"If you look carefully you can see the front toenail. One side toenail, the other side toenail and the heel of this male rhino," explained Lombard.
In this private South African game park, part of the larger Kruger National Park
, Lombard and Moyane not only track rhinos but search for poachers who want to kill the animals for their horns.
During this game viewing excursion, they come across a pair of rare black rhinos, one of the world's most endangered animals.
"This is such an amazing and beautiful moment knowing the history and everything that's got to do with rhino poaching," noted Lombard. "And yet here's this beautiful black rhino mommy with her calf."
Lombard said this sighting is a positive sign amid an anti-poaching fight that gets tougher all the time.
"It’s an ongoing war and you need to constantly be ahead of these guys [poachers] and coming up with new ideas and new techniques," he said. "It is becoming very much modernized in the ways of trying to stop these guys from poaching our rhino's."
The Kruger Park area has been the hardest hit by poaching yet this private reserve hasn’t lost a single animal. Staff here credits their policy of injecting poison into the horns. It doesn't harm the rhinos but makes their horns unsuitable for human consumption.
The measure is designed to curb a thriving black market for rhino horns in Asian countries where they are believed to have some traditional medicinal value. Despite the fact that rhino horn is little more than protein similar to that of human hair or nails, it can fetch about $60,000 per kilo.
That is powerful incentive for poachers, who are becoming increasingly organized, well-armed and bold.
The mission of protecting the rhino is personal for Moyane who grew up in this area.
"I want to see all of these animals alive. If they disappear then we will be left with just saying there was a rhino like this and the next generation will never know they will just see them in books," said Moyane.
Despite a variety of anti-poaching measures - which include public awareness campaigns both in Africa and Asia - chief park ranger Juan Pinto said the rhino is still sliding towards extinction in many other locations.
"There needs to be political, international and government influence that needs to come into play from multiple countries that want to try and stop this," he said. "It is not going to be stopped from a ground root level only."
The game rangers and trackers here say they'll do everything they can to protect the rhino for future generations to enjoy. But they say if rhino poaching doesn't stop, these majestic mammals will be lost forever.