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Will we see Africa's rhinos become extinct in our lifetime? The continent's rhinos are already endangered and now they are being killed at a rapidly increasing rate. The rhinos are not safe in South Africa's parks despite drastic measures including deadly gun battles with poachers.

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On July 19, 2011, soldiers from South African National Defense Force (SANDF) check their weapons before a night patrol in Kruger National Park (KNP). The military began patrolling KNP in April to combat a surge in rhino poaching. Around 21,000 rhinos, both black and white, remain in South Africa, home to 70 percent of the world's rhino population. (Stephane De Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images)
South Africa

Rhino War: South Africa resorts to drastic measures

South Africa is fighting a war to save its endangered rhinoceros population.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – A tense war rages across the Bushveld here, over the fate of the rhinoceros.

On one side, heavily armed poachers are killing rhinos at a ferocious rate, at times deploying helicopters and high-powered rifles to claim their quarry. They are cashing in on a high-stakes trade, fueled by the erroneous belief among increasingly rich Chinese and Vietnamese that rhino horn can cure cancer, among other maladies.

Squaring off against them, South Africa is resorting to extreme tactics to save a fragile population that may be slumping towards extinction. The country is deploying helicopters, radar technology and army troops. Some are even attempting to poison rhino horns to dissuade would-be consumers.

At times, the conflict spills over into actual armed battle between the two sides.

Conservationists are shocked that the problem has become so grave. By the latter half of the 20th century, South Africa’s rhino resurgence was considered one of the world’s great conservation victories.

In the late 19th century, decades of trophy hunting by rich white men in pith helmets decimated the white rhino population. At least one variety, the southern white rhino, had nearly been wiped out. For a while they were thought to be extinct, until a few dozen were discovered around iMfolozi, the former hunting grounds of Zulu King Shaka, in the 1890s.

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From fewer than 500 white rhinos in the 1950s, South Africa’s population has grown to about 18,500. There are also about 2,500 critically endangered black rhinos. (All rhinos are grey in color; the term "white" is thought to come from the Afrikaans word for "wide," referring to the shape of the white rhino's mouth.)

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But four years ago, a new siege began. This time, it is led by poachers who shoot or tranquilize rhinos before brutally hacking off their horns.

In the past, low-level poaching saw small amounts of illegal horn sent to Yemen to make dagger handles, and East Asia for use in “traditional medicine.”

Although rhino horn is essentially fingernail – both are composed of keratin — these days it fetches up to $65,000 a kilogram in Vietnam and China, according to conservation experts who track the illicit market. The newly rich buy it as a cure for cancer, a fever or even just a hangover. 

Demand from Vietnam has grown particularly fast. Some conservationists point to claims by a high-level Vietnamese government official that rhino horn cured his cancer, which is said to have spurred demand.

The new crisis has escalated quickly. An average of 13 rhinos a year were killed by poachers for most of the last decade, considered a manageable level. But suddenly, in 2008, that number rose to 83. It has increased exponentially every year since, hitting a record high of 448 dead rhinos in 2011 despite a barrage of new efforts to stop the poaching. Because rhinos are an endangered species, the South African National Parks closely monitor their numbers.

More from GlobalPost: South African rhinos under fire

Security has been ramped up at private reserves and national parks, and rhinos have been fitted with tracking devices and microchips. Game rangers rely on high-tech equipment, including night-vision goggles, while border guards at Johannesburg’s international airport have received special training to detect horns.

Delegations of South African police and officials have traveled to Vietnam for meetings with their counterparts.

But so far, nothing has helped. At least 58 rhinos have been killed just two months into 2012 – a year slated to be the worst yet for poaching.

Some experts in South Africa are warning that the tipping point has been reached. Population increase has been reversed. More rhinos are dying than are being born.

After 70 years of conservation work, the white rhino may once again be heading towards extinction.

It is “extremely concerning” that despite the efforts to combat poaching, the rampant killing continues, said Kirsty Brebner, rhino project manager for Endangered Wildlife Trust, a South African conservation group.

“It’s an extremely complex situation, with organized crimes links,” she said. “There is no one silver bullet, no easy solution.”

Rhino hunting is legal in South Africa under a strict permit system that allows a hunter to kill