In a bid to stop poachers killing and injuring rhinos for their horns, some vets and conservationists in South Africa have taken the drastic step of de-horning the mammals in an attempt to save the species.

While taking a chainsaw to a rhino's most distinctive feature might seem barbaric, there is no feeling in the horn.

"De-horning is really not much worse than cutting your own fingernails," explained vet Mike Toft.

And like fingernails, rhinos' horns grow back, and so in KwaZulu-Natal province where the scheme is taking place, the rhinos must be tranquillised and de-horned every year or two.

Rhino horn is worth more in weight than gold or cocaine, with a single kilogram fetching tens of thousands of pounds on the black market, meaning that poachers will target the animals for any bit of horn they can get.

A single kilogram of rhino horn can fetch tens of thousands of pounds on the black market. Credit: APTN

KwaZulu-Natal has the most diverse range of both black and white rhinos in the country, and also one of the biggest populations of the species, but in 2017, 200 rhinos were lost to poachers.

In 2016, a further 162 were killed.

And those that survive their encounters with poachers are often left with horrific gunshot, axe and machete wounds.

With less than 25,000 rhinos left in Africa, Project Rhino - an association of different organisations - realised that something drastic needed to be done in order to save the species and launched its de-horning programme.

Poachers will target rhinos for any bit of horn they can get, meaning they must be kept as short as possible. Credit: APTN

The scheme has been a huge success.

Prior to the project's introduction, rhinos poached on private reserves made up 25% of the total killed by illegal hunters, but this has plummeted to 4.5% in the two years that de-horning has been taking place.

Despite the success, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says de-horning is not practical in large populations since it costs around £900 per rhino and the logistics of carrying it out are difficult, leaving conservationists searching for more answers to save the critically endangered species.