The roaring chainsaw sends fingernail-like shards flying into the baking Zimbabwean bush as it slices through the slumped black rhino’s foot-long horn.
The critically endangered female loses her spikes in just seconds, after being darted from a helicopter.
Doctor Chris Forging cuts a rhino horn in Chipinge National Park, 360km west of Harare
A few minutes later, she leaps up and escapes — disfigured but alive — in a dramatic attempt to deter the poachers who have unleashed a bloodbath on southern Africa’s rhinos.
“De-horning reduces the reward for the poacher,” said Raoul du Toit of the Lowveld Rhino Trust which operates in Zimbabwe’s arid southeast.
“Poaching is a balance between reward and risk. It may tip the economic equation in the situation to one where it’s not worth the poacher operating.”
Rhino poaching reached an all-time high in Africa last year, according to the International Rhino Foundation.
In Zimbabwe, where just 700 rhinos remain, anti-poaching units face military-like armed gangs who ruthlessly shoot the animals to hack off the distinctive horns for the Asian traditional medicine market.
“These poachers in this part of the world here will shoot on sight. They operate in very aggressive units,” Du Toit told AFP.
“They adopt patrol formations when they are after rhinos to detect any anti-poaching units that are deployed against them and they will open fire without hesitation.
“So there’ve been many gunfights — a number of poachers killed, not so many on law enforcement side but that’s mainly through luck.”
Asian demand for rhino horn, believed to treat anything from headaches to sexual woes, has lured highly organised criminal syndicates.
Zimbabwe’s black rhino were poached to a low of 300 in 1995 but recovered and levelled off to nearly double this before plummeting again to reach around 400 last year, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
“It was at this time, 2006-2007, when we actually saw the steep escalation in poaching which is related to syndicate kind of poaching orchestrated out of South Africa,” said WWF’s African rhino manager Joseph Okari.
“It is what makes a big difference between the poaching of today… and the poaching of the ’80s and the early ’90s,” he said.
“That was not highly organised and well co-ordinated like what we are seeing today.”
South Africa and Zimbabwe are rhino poaching hotspots, accounting for nearly all of the 470 rhinos killed in Africa between 2006 and 2009. Half of those killed were in Zimbabwe.
The slaughter this year has intensified in South Africa, where rhino poaching has doubled. Okari puts the shift down to the slashed population in Zimbabwe, particularly in state parks, and hardline controls that include poachers being shot dead.
The result is that the Lowveld region which lost 60 animals last year is now seeing more rhinos born than killed.
“If it was to continue at this level, we could see our population increase in time,” said Lowveld Rhino Trust operations co-ordinator Lovemore Mungwashu.
In addition to de-horning, conservationists in Zimbabwe are fitting rhinos with microchips or transmitters to track them, while mounting foot patrols armed in some areas with AK-47 assault rifles. They’re also conducting intelligence work to infiltrate the gangs.
The Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority — which has a five-tonne store of severed rhino horns in Harare — estimates the country now has 400 critically endangered black and 300 less threatened white rhinos.
“At peak, we had close to 3,000 rhinos — that was in the early ’80s,” said national rhino coordinator Geoffreys Matipano who estimates the horns can fetch up to 20,000 dollars per kilogramme (2.2 pounds).
“If you compare it with the past few years, we have managed to contain rhino poaching in the country.”
The painless de-horning is seen as a deterrent but is short-term, expensive, time-consuming and risky with the notoriously unpredictable animals having to be supported with oxygen and sprayed with cooling water.
The trade is so lucrative that poachers will kill a rhino for two inches of horn, which grows back like a fingernail.
“De-horning is not a stand alone strategy. It has got to work with other strategies,” said Matipano.
For privately run reserves, the fight to protect Zimbabwe’s wildlife is relentless.
“We’ve got guys out 24/7 and monitoring things all the time,” said Colin Wendham of the Malilangwe reserve near Chiredzi, shortly before a furious rhino mother tried to attack his vehicle.
“It’s the only way that we’re keeping on top of things.”
While saying state parks still face continual declines, Du Toit believes agressive law enforcement alongside good monitoring can win the fight against the poachers.
“We’re dealing with very aggressive criminals,” he said as the team ear-notched a young female.
“These are not just impoverished local people out to just make a little money — these are focused professional criminals.”