As he watched a white rhino take its final breath after poachers broke its back and hacked off its horn, Maj. Gen. Johan Jooste said he realized that South Africa is facing a war to save the endangered species.

It was one of at least 273 slaughtered this year as poachers target South Africa, where 90 percent of the world’s rhinos live. The horns sell for more than gold by weight in China and Vietnam, where they are believed to cure cancer and boost sexual prowess.

Most of the rhino killings have occurred in Kruger National Park, which abuts a porous border with Mozambique easily crossed by poachers wielding assault rifles.

Jooste, 60, was appointed to a position in December overseeing a force of 550 soldiers and rangers. His aim is to halt a poaching surge that the government says may result in the deaths of more rhinos than births by 2016, threatening the animals with extinction.

“On the planet, this is the last cache,” Jooste said, sitting in his hunter-green starched uniform behind a desk decorated with a bayonet and a dark wooden rhino statue at his office in Kruger National Park. “We are fighting an insurgency war.”

The day before the rhino was found, five soldiers affiliated with the task force died in a helicopter crash. Six more of the animals were killed in the following days.

“There’s no way in the world that losing two-plus rhinos a day is sustainable,” said Craig Sholley, vice president at the Nairobi-based African Wildlife Foundation. “We’re getting very close.”

Well-funded criminals

Jooste fought for South Africa during the apartheid era against Angola in the 1980s before becoming a business developer for BAE Systems. He said his time fighting on the border of Namibia, which sits between Angola and South Africa, will serve him in his new role of stanching the flow of poachers from Mozambique.

Last year 668 rhinos were poached in South Africa, eight times the number in 2008, according to government statistics. Kruger, which has a 217-mile border with Mozambique, is where 72 percent of the killings took place.

With gross domestic product per capita of $650 a year, according to the International Monetary Fund, Mozambique is the world’s 20th poorest nation, providing a pool of people willing to risk being shot for a fraction of the spoils from a successful rhino hunt. A 17-year-old Mozambican poacher captured in South Africa said he was given a 26-pound sack of cornmeal to join a hunting party, according to Jooste.

“We’re dealing with an organized crime element that is extremely well funded,” Sholley said. “At the moment, they’re winning the battle.”

This year 13 poachers have been killed and 28 arrested in Kruger, according to information from the park. Eight more were arrested near the park Wednesday, the national park said. Citing police, the South African Press Association reported that two people were arrested with rhino horns in the eastern Mpumalanga province.

A rhinoceros is pictured in Kruger National Park on February 6, 2013 in Skukuza, South Africa. (Ian Walton/Getty Images)

“We are not happy” with Mozambique’s efforts to curb the poaching, said Fundisile Mketeni, the deputy director-general in charge of conservation at South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs. “They should do as we do, by deploying the police and defense forces.”

New laws and a buffer zone

Mozambique is seeking to implement laws that will make wildlife poaching a crime with heavier sentences than the current offense of damage to property, Minister of Tourism Fernando Sumbana said on a visit to South Africa in March.

Game wardens are expected to become paramilitary combatants ready to brave predators such as lions and leopards on five-day foot patrols through the savannah, Jooste said. The rangers need to scare off a flow of increasingly well-armed poachers, some of them hardened fighters from Mozambique’s 15-year civil war.

Radar systems and aerial drones failed to monitor Kruger effectively because of its dense bush, Jooste said. Instead, he wants to install sensors and increase the use of sniffer dogs and air patrols.

Central to Jooste’s plan is creating a buffer zone in Mozambique by encouraging private developers to build fenced wildlife parks along the border, creating an incentive for the local population to protect the animals by bringing income and employment to the area. On the South African side of the park, private estates used for game lodges adjoin Kruger. The Private Granite Suites at the private luxury Londolozi game reserve cost as much as $1,390 per person per night.

Tourism contributed $9.4 billion in South Africa last year, according to the government. The industry employs 4.5 percent of all working South Africans. Many tourists come to see the Big Five: elephants, buffaloes, lions, leopards and rhinos.

White and black rhinos were brought back from the brink of extinction in South Africa in the 1960s to a stable population of close to 20,000. Most of them are the larger white rhinos and about three-quarters are in Kruger. With fewer than 5,000 black rhinos alive, they are classified by the World Wildlife Fund as critically endangered.

For Jooste, looking down at the dying animal brought home the challenges that he and his rangers face.

“We stood at the most horrific sight, a rhino with his nose cut off,” Jooste said as he imitated the dying breaths of the rhino. “Now that’s bad.”

— Bloomberg News