In 2010 a black rhinoceros female named Phila survived two separate and brutal attempts on her life. In the first, poachers used a helicopter to attack the private game reserve where she lived in South Africa. Another rhino died in the assault. Phila escaped with two gunshot wounds. She was lucky, but her ordeal was not over—a few months later the poachers struck again. This time insiders leaked the location of the secure boma (pen), where she had been placed to recover from her injuries. When the poachers arrived, Phila had nowhere to run. She was shot seven times, including twice in the skull, but her luck held out and she survived. Today she lives in a zoo, her habitat restricted, but her life secure.

A new film discusses Phila's story and the poachers that took aim at her. Biologist Carin Bondar discusses the documentary, Saving Rhino Phila, today in SA's PsiVid blog.

So why did these poachers go to so much effort to attack Phila? It boils down to the pointy lumps of keratin at the end of her snout. Rhino horn is highly valued in traditional Asian medicine, where it is powdered and used to treat a variety of illnesses, even though the horns have no actual medicinal value. Unfortunately, rhino horns have a lot of monetary value to the people willing to kill to get them.

A growing problem

The number of rhinos being poached and killed for their horns began to climb dramatically about five years ago after several quiet decades. At the beginning of the 20th century only a handful of rhinos were being killed each year. In 2009 122 rhinos were killed for their horns in South Africa. A year later, that number had nearly tripled to 333. It climbed again in 2011, reaching 448 animals. This year has already broken that record: as of October 15, a record 455 rhinos have already been killed in South Africa.

Although this is a worldwide problem, the best counts of rhino poaching come out of South Africa, where more than 80 percent of the world's rhinos now live, but other countries face similar threats. At least 15 rhinos have been killed in India so far this year. The last 35 or so Javan rhinos in Indonesia are under constant guard (but still threatened). The western black rhino was poached into extinction in Cameroon around the year 2000, and the final rhino in Vietnam (a subspecies of the Javan rhino) was killed by poachers in 2010.

Although the majority of poached rhinos are southern white rhinoceri—the most populous of the five rhino species—all species are affected. For some rhinos, any loss could affect the entire future of their species.

A useless cure

Rhino poaching and horn-smuggling aren't like most other cross-border crimes. Gunrunners sell violence and power. Drug smugglers peddle intoxication. The sex trade sells pleasure and pain. Bushmeat smugglers market traditional foods from simpler times. Rhino horn smugglers and purveyors, however, push empty promises and medical quackery.

The sad, simple truth is that rhino horn won't cure anything, so every rhino killed is a complete waste. But that fact doesn't stop the demand: Increased wealth in China and Southeast Asia has elevated rhino horn into a status symbol, expanding the market from its traditional use as a cure for fever and other disorders. In Vietnam con men recently started marketing rhino horn as a cure for cancer or as a party drug to lessen the effects of alcohol. As Tom Milliken, a rhino expert with the wildlife trade organization TRAFFIC International said in August, "The surge in rhino horn demand from Vietnam has nothing to do with meeting traditional medicine needs, it's to supply a recreational drug to party-goers or to con dying cancer patients out of their cash for a miracle rhino horn cure that will never happen."

(I should note that rhino horn isn't used as an aphrodisiac, despite the commonly repeated myth.)

All of this has driven the price for rhino horn way, way up. Some sources say a horn can fetch as much as a million dollars by the time it hits the market in Asia. And as prices rise, the price on rhinos' heads increases.

A horny dilemma

The possession and sale of rhino horn is banned under international law, but enforcement remains a problem. National borders are porous and international smuggling is far too easy. Few poachers are arrested and even fewer are prosecuted for their crimes. When they are found guilty, punishments are often lax, amounting to little more than a slap on the wrist.

Meanwhile, the sheer amount of profit that can come from rhino poaching makes it all the more enticing. Veterinarians have been arrested for providing drugs to dart and immobilize rhinos for easy and silent assault; the sound of gunfire can bring guards. Rangers, ranchers and guards have been known to sell out the animals in their charge. Money also brings more powerful weapons, so the teams that protect rhinos are often outgunned; all too frequently policemen, game wardens and rangers are killed by poachers in South Africa.

So few solutions

Many rhinos in captivity or on private reserves have had most of their horns chopped off to make them less attractive to poachers. Unfortunately, this doesn't really act as much of a deterrent. Rhino horn is now so valuable that any amount is enough for a poacher. Phila, the subject of the new documentary, had most of her horn removed after the first attack, but that didn't stop the poachers from coming back to try to get what little she had left.

Meanwhile, rhinos actually depend on their horns. Usage varies by species but African rhinos especially use their horns to defend themselves and as a signal of sexual maturity. Rhinos also use their horns to dig for food and water and to guide their offspring, and their loss denies the mammals a key part of how they live their lives.

Some private rhino ranchers support ending the international ban on trade, suggesting that they could painlessly remove the horns from their animals, sell them, and use the money to buy more land to increase rhino populations. But this takes us back to ivory: the jump in elephant poaching over the past few years has been tied to a couple of one-off sales of ivory stockpiles. These transactions seem to have created unclear perceptions in the minds of consumers as to which ivory is legal, thereby allowing black market ivory to be easily disguised as the legal variety and smuggled around the world. Many opponents of legalizing the horn trade say this would undoubtedly happen with rhinos as well.

For now, the best solution seems to be attacking the demand at the source with public information campaigns to inform consumers that rhino horn has no magic healing abilities and animals are needlessly and brutally killed to feed the market. Quite a few groups are running ads in Asia to dissuade people from buying horn. Those posters and videos will have to be unusually persuasive—most rhino species don't have much time left for the message to sink in.

For more on rhinos and poaching, read some of my previous articles:

Photos: White rhinoceros by Steve Garvie. Indian rhinoceros by Lip Kee Yap. Both used under Creative Commons license