We'd been driving for close to three hours. The sun was setting in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, casting the bush in a gray and orange haze, our eyes working harder to adjust to the darkness. Soon we'd have to give up the search. Sitting in the tracker's seat at the front of the Land Rover was Barry Peiser, rhino monitor at Thanda Safari Private Game Reserve. He had been analysing dung, sections of trampled bush and prints in the mud. Still there was no sight of the southern white rhino.
Behind the wheel was Mariana Venter, wildlife coordinator at Thanda Safari. With an intimate knowledge of every rhino on the 35,000-acre reserve, Venter had taken us to both the white and black rhinos' favorite spots. Along the way we watched herds of Cape buffalo, wildebeests and giraffe on the run, but no rhinos.
Venter turned back toward the lodge. She took a left; Peiser raised his hand and Venter brought the vehicle to a sudden stop. I followed the tracker's gaze. Twenty yards away was a two-ton southern white rhino and her calf standing at the edge of a wallow. I caught my breath. The full-grown female was like something from another world - massive, stocky, prehistoric, with thick gray skin, a meaty nuchal hump, wide, square lip and powerful legs. She was beautiful.
I was taking part in Thanda's rhino-trekking experience, an add-on to its twice-daily safari trip. For an additional US$125 ($180), this up-close-and-personal excursion is designed to bring guests inside the world of its resident rhino population. As with all other rhinos in the world, they are under the constant threat of being killed by poachers for their horns.
We sat for a few minutes watching them, and then I heard the distinct slide and pump of a rifle loading from the seat behind me (for our protection, I later learned). My guide, Barry James, swung his legs over the side of the Jeep. I followed, the four of us making our way toward the animals. "If they come at us," James said, "run - and hide behind a tree."
I walked swiftly behind him as we broke through the bush, the prickles of the monkey thorns piercing my clothing as if purposely slowing me down. While we approached, the mother rhino looked up. The calf, sensing her unease, moved nearer to her and the two took off into a trot.
"We had to keep her horn," Venter explained in a whisper as we followed the pair. "She needs to be able to defend her baby. But when he is grown, we will need to take it."
According to data from Save the Rhino, South Africa is home to the densest population of rhinos in the world and has seen a 9000 per cent increase in rhino poaching from 2007 to 2014. Last year, more than 1000 rhinos were killed.
Rachel Nuwer, who spent eight years investigating the illegal wildlife trade for her forthcoming book Poached, says the demand for rhino horn began to rise a decade ago as the growing middle class in Vietnam and China found themselves with disposable income. "Among certain circles in Vietnam, rhino horn is considered a luxury item, a major gift for someone," she says. "When people are closing a business deal, rhino horn might be exchanged instead of a Rolex."
Although still used in traditional medicine in these countries, rhino horn has evolved into a purported cure-all for a range of ailments including hangovers and cancer; in some cases, it is a party drug - ground up into a powder, mixed with water and imbibed as a shot. While international trafficking of rhino horns has been illegal since the 1970s, foreign agencies have done little to enforce the law.
For poachers, rhino horns are worth "more than gold or platinum," says Susie Ellis, executive director of the International Rhino Foundation, a nonprofit organization that funds and operates rhino conservation and protection programs in Africa and Asia (where there are fewer than 100 Javan and Sumatran rhinos remaining).
"At this rate of poaching, rhinos could likely - along with elephants - become extinct in our lifetime," she says. "Poaching is not significantly decreasing in Africa. [Rhinos] are just barely holding their own."
In KwaZulu-Natal, Venter is finding new ways to protect the animals and dissuade poachers by engaging guests in the campaign. Money from excursions such as the rhino treks is used to fund its conservation programs, including dehorning the rhinos on the property in a widely used pre-emptive procedure. (Specialists use a safe, pain-free method of sawing off the horn, which continues to grow like human fingernails.)
"There are little pockets of hope of rhino conservation," Nuwer says, "many driven by tourism."
In March, the plight of rhinos gained international attention when the last male northern white rhino, Sudan, died at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, leaving behind only a daughter and granddaughter, and making the species functionally extinct.
Just before Sudan's death, Intrepid Travel, an adventure travel company, announced a limited expedition to Kenya to visit the remaining northern white rhinos. Twenty per cent of the profit from these expeditions - scheduled for this fall and next summer - will be donated on behalf of travelers to the East African Wildlife Society (EAWLS) through the Intrepid Foundation.
Leigh Barnes, Intrepid Travel's chief purpose officer, said endangered wild animals are far more valuable alive than dead, especially when tourism provides added economic benefits.
"We need to support conservation tourism that can help serve wildlife, creating money, jobs and making the benefits of tourism more beneficial than poaching," he said. "Done correctly, it can conserve the species."
Game hunters are known to pay in the six figures to harvest "Big Five" animals at hunting lodges throughout Africa, which often fund conservation programs. (The Big Five are the lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and Cape buffalo.) But wildlife tourism programs for everyday travellers can create a compassionate connection with the animals, in addition to raising money.
"When you are out there in the bush and see a rhino in the wild, there is a deep emotional connection made," Ellis said. "Seeing one up close can be transformative. People come back and want to know how they can help, and that's important. In the end, you will save only what you love."