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Rhinos' worst year: South Africa fights the poachers

Conservationist fire tranquilisers at injured rhinos in order to access them for treatment. Photo: ITV News

A beautiful and rugged patch of South Africa's Eastern Cape looked more like a battlefield, according to one eyewitness. The tortured beasts stumbled through the swaying grass - bleeding, helpless and dying.

Vets and game park owners have become too used to the sight of a recently-poached rhino, but to see three rhinos wounded in a single blitz is almost unheard of.

One died immediately after the attack, in early March. A second pulled through for a while, but lost his life a few days later. But a third, Thandi, has lived, though she remains seriously ill.

It seemed that her life had ended under the tree where she had collapsed. But vets have pulled her back from the brink of death. They refer to her limited recovery as "a rare miracle" at a time when the future of the rhino appears to be under threat.

The magnificent creature has been brought low by the brutal trade in its natural weapon, its horn.

Demand comes from parts of China and Vietnam, where new wealth has combined with an age-old myth that ground down, the horn can be used to cure cancer. Consequently, it is now worth around £35,000 per kilogram, according to one estimate, more than its weight in gold.

Thandi had her horn savagely cut off by poachers. Credit: ITV News

In South Africa, some 159 rhinos have been poached so far this year, a kill-rate of almost 1.7 a day. 2012 is likely to be the rhino's worst year, with a death toll that even surpasses last year's grim figure of 449. In 2007, 13 were killed.

The methods are sophisticated. Night vision and hi-tech tranquilisers are often used. But many raids would not be possible without basic information - tip-offs from local staff.

With little positive news from the frontline of the war with poachers, 'Save Thandi' has become a rallying cry amongst those who care about the plight of the rhino in South Africa.

And so, it took little effort to gather more than a dozen volunteers and vets at the game park where she is recovering to help in the next step of the precarious operation to keep her alive.

We race towards her in a fleet of 4x4s. A helicopter circles above us. On board a vet fires a dart into her leg to immobilise her.

On the ground, we glimpse precious Thandi in the distance. Robbed of her horn and her swagger, she looks more like a hippo than a rhino as she falls to the ground.

A group of men keep her down while her wound is inspected and she is checked for infections. After half an hour she is given a ‘clear’. She is still in some danger, but with further treatment it seems that she will survive.

The volunteers seem relieved, but that may be short-lived.

Elsewhere, the fight to save the rhino is being lost.