In late February, four South Africa National Parks officials were arrested for involvement in rhino poaching. Only a few days later, dehorned rhinos in a private reserve were butchered for just a stub of horn.
It's a growing problem in the region, as east Asian consumer demand for horn grows -- to treat headaches, rheumatism and other conditions -- and poachers grow more brazen in their attacks.
A few private reserves and rhino conservation groups have tried dehorning rhinos, poisoning horns and embedding tracking technologies, but these methods have not been as effective as expected.
“Tracking devices are of limited value," said Wilhelm Schack, a wildlife veterinarian and ecologist from Eko Wild. "In the guerrilla-type warfare of the poaching world ... poachers have long killed the animal and disappeared with the horns by the time you have tracked down the animal with your high-tech equipment."
A new method is needed, said John Hume, owner of one of the world's largest private rhino herd.
“We have failed to halt poaching with moratoriums, trade bans, punitive legislation, eastern educational campaigns, increased anti-poaching methods and whatever else we have been doing," he said.
There's one unlikely option left: Legalizing the horn trade.
Despite the ban on the horn trade, trophy hunting is allowed in South Africa. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species limits the hunt to five black male rhinos a year in South Africa.
But that hunting permit system has been abused, said Pelham Jones, chairman of the Private Rhino Owners' Association. Traders post as trophy hunters, kill more than is allowed and sell the horns, he said.
But people shouldn't confuse rhino hunting with the rhino horn trade, said Michael Kock, a veterinarian who works for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
“Rhino sport hunting is inappropriate under the current circumstances and should not be linked to rhino horn trade," he said. "Rhino horn regenerates, so a live rhino is more valuable than a dead rhino."
Hume, the private herd owner, said the ban on horn trade has led to an increase in poaching, driving the price "unnecessarily high" by making horn artificially scarce.
A single rhino horn can fetch up to $250,000, making it worth more than gold or cocaine, said William Fowlds, co-owner of the Amakhala Game Reserve.
Even so, the natural mortality rate of rhinos yields enough horn to supply the market, Hume said.
"African conservation agencies and private farmers already hold between 15 and 30 years' supply of rhino horn at the current rate of black market supply," Hume said. "These stockpiles are worth millions of dollars. The best way to ensure the rhino's future is to make live rhino as economically valuable as possible."
To illustrate the possibilities of the legal horn trade, Tanya Jacobsen, campaign manager at RhinoDotCom, points to the story of the vicuna, an animal similar to a llama in the Andean Highlands. In the mid-1960s, high demand for its fine wool had brought the species to the brink of extinction, she said.
But a campaign formed to pay local communities to protect vicuna populations and gather the wool sustainably, she said. Today, almost 350,000 survive -- up from a low of about 6,000.
Legalizing the horn trade would be a full-term solution to market demands, said Jones of the Private Rhino Owners' Association. In a legal trade environment, the only horns sold would be from rhinos that die naturally or which are properly dehorned.
But some rhino advocates are uneasy about the idea.
“Advocates of legalizing the horn trade are usually the ones with large numbers of rhinos who want to be able to sell their product, so there is an element of business or greed involved," said Jacques Flamand, project lead of the WWF Black Rhino Range Expansion Project. "But they do also want to see a stop to the black market sale of horn."
But even if done legally, frequent dehorning can cause problems, said Carol Harnwell, who is involved with the group Outraged South African Citizens Against Poaching. Dehorning leaves mothers unable to defend their calves, and makes it difficult for rhinos to forage for food, she said.
And frequent anesthetizing to harvest horns can endanger the rhino's health, she said. Rhinos have died during so-called safe dehorning procedures, she said.
Even if the horn trade is legalized, it would take 6-10 years to change regulations by which time rhinos could have vanished, the Wilderness Foundation said in a submission to government officials in January.
Recent South African Department of Environmental Affairs statistics confirm 159 poaching incidents in the first four months of 2012, more than one-quarter of the 448 reported for all of 2011. There have already been 90 poaching-related arrests made this year.
In early March, Andrew Muir, director of the Wilderness Foundation, asked the U.S. Congress for money to help strengthen and expand rhino law enforcement, improve DNA profiling of rhinos and prosecute poachers.
Without international help, Muir said, “South Africa might not be known as the country that hosted the 2010 Soccer World Cup but the country that allowed its rhino to become extinct through lack of action."