Poachers’ brazen attack

2014-05-19 00:00

IN the most brazen attack yet on South Africa’s dwindling rhino population, poachers darted and dehorned three female white rhinos in the popular Tala Game Reserve at Umlaas Road in broad daylight on Saturday.

The poachers escaped undetected with their bloody loot.

One of the rhinos was found alive and survived after a vet reached it in time to administer an antidote to the stricken ani­mal. It recovered sufficiently to be released back into the reserve.

Tala head ranger Divan Vermaak said he saw the rhino yesterday morning.

It had joined two other rhinos and seemed “quite well”.

However, he said the rhino was “extremely stressed and skittish”.

“The vet suggested we allow it two or three days to settle down before it receives further treatment,” he said at the scene of the incident yesterday.

Staff at the reserve were “devastated and stunned” by the brazen attack, launched in open grassland little more than one to two kilometres to the right of the main entrance.

The crime scene atop a steep grassy incline was within sight of the gate.

The bloated carcasses of the two dead rhinos lay where they had fallen, several metres apart in dry, long grass and separated by a winding dirt track used by vehicles.

The horns had been neatly and precisely sliced off with a sharp instrument, indicating the poachers were skilled.

The Witness was told that “on the plus side” it was unlikely the animals underwent prolonged suffering after being darted with a tranquillising drug thought to be the infamous veterinary drug “M99”.

The main ingredient of the drug, Etorphine, is a schedule 6 drug that can only be bought by vets.

Experts at the scene explained the drug is largely a muscle relaxant and also acts on the respiratory system. If the dose is too high and/or the animal falls incorrectly, it can’t breathe and suffocates.

Sophisticated poaching syndicates are known to use a “cocktail” of drugs, the main ingredient of which is “M99”.

The drug has played a role in numerous recent poaching incidents in KZN, including the deaths of eight rhinos at Weenen Game Reserve in the Midlands late last year.

It is also suspected to have been used to kill three white rhinos at Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s Spioenkop Game Reserve in March this year.

The latest incident reportedly brings to a staggering 43 the number of rhino “hunted” by poachers in KZN this year. This figure includes the rhino that survived the weekend attack.

Derek Grose, the new manager at Tala, said security will be increased.

Officials at the gate yesterday searched all vehicles entering and leaving the reserve. “It’s an understatement to say the staff are absolutely devastated and members of the public are equally upset. This killing is so senseless,” said Grose.

He and Vermaak said the reserve’s rhinos are always kept under surveillance, particularly at night.

“For the past week we have not let them out of our sight at night, especially with it being full moon. Maybe that is why the poachers took such a risk by attacking in broad daylight,” said Vermaak.

He said the carcasses will be buried on the reserve once police investigations are complete.

The slain rhinos were part of a group introduced to the reserve in around 1996, and were 15 to 20 years old.

Vermaak was the first to come upon the clearly visible carcass of one of the dead rhinos while taking a group of day visitors on a game drive shortly before 1 pm on Saturday.

He immediately radioed Grose and ranger Gareth Preiss, who came across the other rhinos close by.

Grose said when he realised one rhino was still breathing, they rolled it over and called the vet to revive it.

They immediately sealed off the area.

Police wildlife crimes investigator Riaan van Rooyen and his team were at the scene within three hours of the rhinos being killed.

Two private aircraft and a helicopter took to the air soon afterwards to find and establish the safety of the remaining rhinos in the reserve.

Grose said all the remaining rhinos are now under 24-hour surveillance.

Magma Security was at the scene yesterday to assist with the investigation and security at the reserve.

Reserve manager Andries Naude said Tala had hosted around 200 visitors on Saturday, including 110 guests at a wedding party that took place at midday.

The registration numbers of all vehicles are registered at the gate and entrance fees are paid by credit card.

Ownership of Tala, which was subject to a land claim, was transferred to the Nkumbuleni community trust on June 1 last year.

Tala managing director Phelelani Duma said yesterday the poaching incident was a “baptism of fire”.

“It’s a very sad day for us,” he said.

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