Rhino hunting in South Africa got off to a gruesome start in 2012. Not even two weeks into January, two suspected poachers were killed in a shootout with park rangers who had discovered eight rhino carcasses in the famous Kruger National Park. This after a banner year in rhino hunting that saw an all-time high of 448 animals slaughtered in 2011 for their horns, which can sell for more than $50,000 per kilogram according to the International Rhino Foundation.
Only 13 rhinos were reportedly killed in South Africa in 2007, a measure of how the illegal trade seems to be intensifying. Prices are reportedly being pushed up by demand in East Asia, where rhino horn is considered a luxury item, a hangover remedy, and—without evidence—a cure for cancer. The lucrative trade is luring poachers to the South African backcountry, where they are showing a new degree of innovation: some have been known to use helicopters and night-vision goggles to track down and kill rhinos. “Rhino poaching is being conducted by sophisticated criminal syndicates that smuggle horns to Asia,” Morné du Plessis, head of the World Wildlife Fund’s South African branch, recently told the Guardian newspaper.