After graduating from the University of Colorado in 1997 with a masters in creative writing, Melinda MacInnis headed west to work in Los Angeles’ fraught inner city school system. However, 10 years later on a holiday trip to Africa, MacInnis became the student after she met a man named Ted Reily—Swaziland’s father of conservation. Over the course of her short trip, he showed MacInnis firsthand the devastating, potentially permanent toll the hunt for rhino horns—dubbed Rhino Wars—is taking on this 50-million-year-old species.

Using her background in education and a team of Colorado filmmakers, MacInnis went back to document the brutal business of illegal rhino horn trading, the brave rangers who are risking their lives to protect the few remaining rhinos, and what is necessary to save this majestic creature from extinction. Her film, The Price, is currently in postproduction, but when released will the most comprehensive coverage of the Rhino Wars in the world. She was honored this month by being named one of National Geographic’s 2014 Travelers of the Year.

Here, MacInnis tells us about making the documentary, why the horn is in such high demand, and how it feels to win this prestigious award.

5280: What inspired you to make a documentary?

On my first trip to Africa’s Swaziland in 2008, I met Ted Reilly. He and his family turned their property into one of the first eco-reserves in all of Africa and brought back 22 locally extinct species. I was so overwhelmed with emotion about what this man had done with his life, and he could tell right away how passionate I was, so he took my friend and me under his wing for four days. We had private safari drives where he explained how vulnerable Africa’s wildlife is, specifically the rhino, which is being hunted to the brink of extinction for its horn. He changed the whole course of my life. I went back to life in L.A., and it just wasn’t the same—I couldn’t forget about what I had seen. I researched everything I could and approached my close friend John Mans, an Emmy-winning cinematographer who had just worked on Whale Wars. I asked if he wanted to come with me to tell the story of Ted Reilly and the Rhino Wars and he said yes. That’s how it started. I spent three years shooting and traveling to as many of the rhino range states in Africa and Asia as I could. We’re now editing the film in Boulder.

Tell us about the history of rhino poaching.

The first Rhino War was in the late ’80s, early ’90s. During that time, Swaziland lost 80 percent of its rhinos. But soon after that, they changed the gaming laws and did everything they could to shut down the rhino horn trade—and it was a huge success! There was no poaching for 20 years. But obviously, that recently changed.

Why are rhino horns in such high demand?

Rhino horns are used as a luxury “medicine” mostly. Certain Asian cultures view ground-up rhino horn as a fancy health elixir. They might drink it as a hangover cure, for example. But in actuality, rhino horns are composed of the same component that makes up hair and fingernails. It’s useless. In Vietnam, some believe rhino horns cure cancer. Because it’s so expensive, it’s become something of a status symbol. In fact, rhino horns are the most expensive illegal substance in the world—more expensive than gold or drugs. They don’t eat the rhino meat; they don’t use it for clothing. It’s all for the useless horn.

Can you tell us a bit about how the illegal trade works?

Poachers are recruited on the ground—they have to know how to track wildlife and be willing to do the dirty work. Then you’ve got the middlemen taking things over the border to organized crime syndicates, who are the third and final piece of the puzzle. Vietnam and China are the biggest markets. Some poachers no longer use AK-47s to shoot the animals because the rangers hear the gunfire. There’s a growing trend to use the tranquilizer M99 and cut the horn off while the animal is sedated. They don’t even have the decency to kill the animal. It wakes up with half its face gone. I don’t even have the words to describe it.

How badly are we hurting the rhino populations?

The number of rhinos killed each year is exponentially growing. There are five species of rhinos, and according to the most recent numbers released in 2011, four are critically endangered today; that’ll likely become all five. In 2007, only 13 rhinos were poached in South Africa; last year, that number was 1,004. For the black and white rhinos specifically, the population numbers are really low. There are less than 5,000 black rhinos in all of Africa. And the Javan Vietnamese subspecies was declared extinct in 2012. It’s gone. These animals have survived ice ages and continental shifts, but they can’t survive us?

What about the rangers who are risking their lives to protect these animals?

Rangers—whether in Indonesia, Kenya, Swaziland, or South Africa—are so proud to be representing their country’s natural heritage. They talk about how much it means to them to protect the animals. It’s a dangerous, hard job. They’re far away from their family and friends risking their lives, knowing that if they run into poachers, they’ll likely be shot at. You don’t choose to become a ranger lightly. People sometime sympathize with poachers, saying they’re just poor, indigenous people, but the rangers are, too! You can’t make that distinction. Rangers are truly the unsung heroes.

What would you like to see your film accomplish?

We didn’t just want to make a film showing the slaughter of rhinos. I didn’t want people just to cry. We want to inspire people to make changes. We want to show that this is a global issue; these changes don’t come from giving $25 to a nonprofit and then being done with it. The changes need to come at the international level. There’s a group called CITES—Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species—which acts as a forum for countries to come together and vote upon legally binding agreements regulating the trade in endangered plants and animals. Lack of enforcement is one of the big problems—each country is responsible for enforcing its own laws. There is no one international body that enforces environmental laws; it all must be based on the cooperation of each member country. Therefore it’s all so weak in reality. We, as global citizens, need to demand an adherence to these trade agreements.

You’re originally from Southern California, home of Hollywood. Why come to Colorado to assemble this project?

I went to grad school at the University of Colorado Boulder and fell in love. I used to juggle living in both places, but Colorado is so special to me. Half my crew is from Colorado, and four of the film’s key players went to CU Boulder film school. We could have worked on the post-production from any location, but it’s just such a joy here. And Colorado is actually emerging as a documentary hub.

Tell us about the National Geographic award.

It’s a huge honor! National Geographic is the pinnacle of exploring. It’s a funny full circle because the college roommate I went to Africa with the first time is the one who nominated me for the award. What I’m most proud of, though, is our work. We have the most comprehensive coverage of the Rhino Wars in the world.

Are you optimistic about the Rhino Wars?

I waver, but I think I am. At the heart of our film is evolution. Humanity needs a quantum evolutionary shift, and the people and organizations around the world that are working to save the rhino are creating a blueprint for all types of environmental solutions. If China and Vietnam and Kenya and South Africa and the United Stated can all agree that there are some things more important than just immediate profit, that’s incredibly important—unprecedented even. We want to use the rhino as a lens to show that major change is possible. We like to say, “save the rhinos, save the world.”

To find out more about MacInnis’s work, read her extended interview with National Geographic. The 2014 Travelers of the Year are featured in the November issue of National Geographic Traveler, which hit newsstands on October 21.