JOHANNESBURG - Elise Daffue will never forget coming upon the young male rhinoceros dying in agony in the South African bush.
The young bull was struggling to breathe as it lay in the tall grass. It had been shot in the head. Maggots swarmed across its bloody snout where poachers had crudely hacked off its horn.
The animal's top lip was paralysed; it had tried to chew on grass but couldn't summon the strength.
The rescue team determined that the animal had been laying there for a week.
"It broke my heart and it broke my soul," said Daffue, the founder of stoprhinopoaching.com, who said that the plight of the animal inspired her to continue her mission. "Seeing that animal and seeing what he's been through and knowing we were helpless to help him. … Not a day goes by when his life doesn't touch my life."
The rescue team tried to rouse the bull, but it was too weak to get up.
Veterinarian Louis Greeff tried to wash out its infected horn.
Finally, Greeff took out his rifle and aimed one shot through the animal's forehead.
"For the rhino's sake I was actually reasonably okay until he was shot," Daffue said. "But the moment he was shot, there are no words to describe the sadness and the devastation. I had never seen a live rhino like that."
The 2,000-kilogram animal died for its five-kilogram horn.
Rise in killings
That animal, which died in February in the nation's northwest Borakalalo National Park, was among the 455 rhinos slaughtered so far for their horns in 2012, a record year for rhino killings in South Africa.
That number eclipses the 448 rhinos that were killed by poachers in 2011. And the death toll has been rising: in 2010, 333 rhinos were poached. Before 2005, however, poachers in South Africa killed an average of 14 rhinos a year.
The simple explanation is that the rise in demand from the growing Asian middle class is driving the rise in poaching.
"Most of the blame falls on the shadowy, sophisticated crime networks, many of them based in Vietnam. Some of those networks have also been linked to the drug trade and to human trafficking "
- Jo Shaw - WWF South Africa
That horn, which is made of keratin and is reputed to have medicinal benefits in Asian traditional medicine, costs more per ounce than gold.
Those alleged benefits - including that its an aphrodisiac, can end hangovers and can even cure cancer - have been largely dispelled by scientific research.
But that hasn't stopped Asian consumers from snapping up the rare product at the whopping price of $65,000 a kilogram.
The drivers of the illicit trade are more complex, says Jo Shaw, rhino co-ordinator for WWF South Africa.
"It seems almost to be a three-legged stool: the complicity of some within the wildlife industry connected with initially a lack of government response and then finally the existing Asian crime networks," Shaw told Al Jazeera.
A report issued by wildlife group TRAFFIC in August noted that a growing number of rhinos are killed "with weapons characteristically used by wildlife industry professionals."
But, Shaw says, most of the blame falls on shadowy, sophisticated crime networks, many of them based in Vietnam. She said some of those networks have also been linked to the drug trade and to human trafficking.
South African journalist Julian Rademeyer is writing a book into the trade.
He's spent two years researching the book, and found that the rhino trade is complex and has deep roots. Syndicate recruiters, he says, prey on poverty endemic in the rural areas near Kruger National Park, where most of the 455 rhinos were killed.
"It's an incredibly complex situation," he said. "You have villages along the border with Kruger (National Park) on the Mozambique side that are incredibly impoverished. And they pretty much have two choices: they can cross the border to Johannesburg and try to find menial work, or they can cross into Kruger and kill a rhino and make more money that they can make in a year. That's a pretty stark choice."
He says another local group involved with the syndicates are white game farm owners. One such owner, Marnus Steyl, is on trial for allegedly exploiting legal loopholes to cover his illegal trade in rhino horn.
Danger of extinction
Conservationists have noted with increasing alarm that if the current trend continues, rhinos could be extinct in a matter of years.
Last year, the WWF announced the extinction of rhinos in Vietnam.
Rhinos attacked for their horns in South Africa
Authorities and wildlife officials have tried hard to stay ahead. Shaw noted a rise in arrests, legislative and regulatory changes, and the establishment of a national wildlife crime reaction unit. WWF, she said, was also researching the market in Vietnam in order to learn how to educate consumers against buying rhino horn.
"One of the first things we realised is that we don't know who's using it and why, to understand the drivers, so we can combat it," she said. "The worst thing you can do is have it backfire and increase demand."
Rademeyer said he was surprised during a visit to Vietnam to hear that consumers had no idea how endangered rhinos are.
"A lot of the people I spoke to didn't quite understand the fuss," he said.
He said people told him: " ‘There's a horn of this animal that we don't have in Vietnam, and you have thousands of them running around in South Africa.' It's this belief that there's almost an unlimited supply. It's a bit of a disconnect. There's this stereotype being sold in South Africa of these evil, Fu Manchu Asians trying to kill our wildlife. It's more that people there just don't understand the fuss."
In South Africa, officials have also tried more innovative solutions, including de-horning live rhinos to make them less attractive to poachers and opening a rhino orphanage in a secret location.
"It needs to be a multi-pronged response," Shaw said. "Simply having more men and more guns, obviously that's very important, but that's not going to solve the problem."
But, Rademeyer says, "the syndicates are so adept at manipulating regulations and laws that by the time the government has tightened up, the syndicates are already five steps ahead of them."
Meanwhile, Daffue has had her heart and resolve hardened by the dying rhino.
"I can honestly say that now I have zero sympathy," she said. "I went from wanting to give people benefit of the doubt because of poverty and their circumstances. But those are not the people killing rhinos, it's organised crime syndicates and gangsters killing rhinos."