Last Stand: Saving Rhinos by Removing Their Valuable Horns

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The rhino’s horn evolved over time to be an asset for the animal. But these days, it’s the rhino’s greatest liability. Surging demand for rhino horn in Asia has imperiled the shy, near-sighted ungulate. Last year, poachers slaughtered more than 400 in South Africa — home to 75% of the world’s remaining rhinos.

One South African town has taken matters into its own hands. In Hoedspruit, a group of residents calling itself Rhino Revolution has started removing local rhinos’ horns to deter poachers. Since August of last year, the team has protected 150 rhinos from potential slaughter by tranquilizing them and taking a chainsaw to their horns.”I’d hate us to be the future community that would apologize to the world for having lost such an important species,” said Trevor Jordan, one of the project leaders. NBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams traveled to the African veld to film the community’s mercy mission.

(PHOTOS: A Perilous Threat to Rhinos)

Despite efforts to protect rhinos in South Africa, criminal syndicates that smuggle the precious horns go largely undetected. Many Vietnamese believe that rhino horns (after being shaved or ground into powder) can cure cancer, and the illegal product is cropping up everywhere from the Vietnamese embassy in Pretoria to the medicine shops of Hanoi. Meanwhile in China, proponents of traditional medicine have kicked off a campaign to overturn the country’s two-decade ban on the use of rhino horn for medicinal purposes. Last year, TIME unearthed evidence to suggest that a Chinese arms manufacturer, Hawk Group, had set up a rhino breeding ground in Hainan province to produce products like “rhino horn detox pills,” which it projected would bring in some $60 million per year.

Conservationists warn that rhino farms may rekindle interest in horns, leading to the slaughter of wild animals. “The scale of the Chinese market is potentially so awesome, one miscalculation and we potentially could lose entire species,” Tom Milliken of wildlife trade monitoring agency Traffic told TIME.

Meanwhile, wildlife officials have their hands full in the field. Some units meant to protect rhinos end up colluding with poachers. Those who genuinely try to protect the animals are often out-gunned and lack arrest powers. “This is not a crisis just for South Africa,” Lieutenant Colonel Lineo Grace Motsepe, commander of the endangered species desk of the South African police service, told TIME. “It’s a crisis for the whole world.”

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