Since January this year, 12 white rhino have been poached for their horns in the game reserves of KwaZulu-Natal, their carcasses left to rot.
A black rhino was dehorned after being caught in a snare at Ndumo, but this is suspected to have been an opportunistic capture on the part of the poachers.
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW) media spokesman Jeff Gaisford said yesterday white rhino are easy targets for poachers’ guns as they are “ponderous” and “cow-like” and move around more openly than their shy, rarer black counterparts.
It is unclear if the poachers involved in these killings are part of the same syndicate, but professionals involved in the investigation believe that “big money” is behind a surge in poaching incidents, both in KZN and countrywide.
Rod Potter, chairman of the EKZNW crime working group, confirmed that on average only two or three rhino are poached a year in the province, and in some years, none at all are killed.
“It is of extreme concern to us and we are working closely with the SA Police Services’ organised crime unit members to solve these crimes,” he said.
He said provincial legislation provides for a maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment without the option of a fine for rhino poaching.
Stiffer penalties, including fines of three times the value of the animal poached, can be invoked under more recent national legislation.
The average value of a white rhino currently is about R140 000.
There is no established value for rhino horn sold illegally on the black market.
The Witness was able to confirm yesterday that six suspects were arrested in May this year in connection with one of the rhino poaching incidents, which occurred near Charters Creek in the Lake St Lucia area earlier this year.
The men appeared in court at Mtubatuba and charges against three of them are understood to have been withdrawn, but this could not be confirmed yesterday.
The docket has been referred to the office of the KZN Director of Public Prosecutions for a decision on how to proceed with the case.
The latest incident, in which four white rhino were killed, occurred in EKZNW’s Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park last week.
The rhino carcasses — with horns “neatly” and “professionally” removed — were discovered by staff members at the game reserve on Sunday.
Gaisford confirmed the incident yesterday and told The Witness that the rhino were believed to have been shot dead about five days earlier, judging by the decomposed condition of the carcasses.
He also confirmed information gathered by The Witness that the incident is not an isolated one and that 12 white rhino have been slaughtered for their horns in the province’s wildlife reserves since the beginning of this year.
A statement issued by Gaisford states that field rangers on a routine patrol in the Masinda section of the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park came across the carcass of a white rhino in the Makhandendlovu area.
“Acting on an established protocol, one field ranger approached the carcass and saw that the horns had been cleanly removed.
“The field rangers immediately reported this and the conservation manager of Imfolozi, Mr Dave Robertson, duly alerted the local SAPS and other EKZNW staff,” read the statement.
“EKZNW staff, accompanied by the SAPS team, went out to the site and began the examination of the carcass, which appeared to be that of an adult female.
“When the group examined the tracks of the animal they found a further two carcasses — an adult female and a sub-adult calf about 200 metres away. A fourth carcass lay about 30 metres beyond this.
“The horns of all four animals had been cleanly removed with a sharp instrument, indicating that someone with considerable experience had been at work.
“After a thorough examination of the area and a search for any clues, the group left the site under guard to protect the carcasses from scavengers,” read the statement.
Postmortems conducted by the EKZNW veterinary surgeon revealed that all four animals had been shot with a heavy-calibre rifle some five days previously, Gaisford said.
If you have information about the poaching, please call Imfolozi conservation manager Mr Dave Robertson at 035 550 8481; the wildlife investigator for the Zululand region Michael Mfuleka at 083 664 1314, or the EKZNW hotline at 0800 212 126.