KwaZulu-Natal - Investigators have uncovered an alleged rhino poaching conspiracy involving two women, a high-powered rifle - and a hired gunman.Their target? A rhino in a KwaZulu-Natal game reserve, one of the rapidly declining population of rhinos in South Africa, as poachers bring the species to the brink of extinction.But, unbeknown to the two women, the “poacher” they procured was in fact an undercover police agent sent in after police got wind of their alleged plot to procure and sell rhino horn on the black market.This is the basis of the case that the prosecution will set out to prove in court against two women from the Colenso district - Confidence Angel Mlambo, aged 32, and Nokwanda Trendy Khumalo, aged 22.They are the first women in the province to face charges linked to the rhino poaching epidemic facing the country.The number of rhinos poached so far this year in South Africa has climbed to an unprecedented 790, with 100 being killed in the past four weeks, according to statistics kept by the Department of Environmental Affairs.In 2010, a total of 333 rhinos were killed and last year a total of 668 fell to poacher’s bullets. UnemployedMlambo and Khumalo appeared briefly in the Ladysmith regional court on Monday charged with unlawful possession of a firearm, a hunting rifle, and with conspiracy to illegally hunt a rhino at Umsuluzi game park in the KZN Midlands on 24 April.The case was postponed due to their lawyer withdrawing over non-payment. They were thereafter granted legal aid.Khumalo appeared in court again yesterday, but Mlambo failed to appear and the court was handed a sick note on her behalf. The alleged crimes committed by the two women, both of whom are said to be unemployed, allegedly took place in the Colenso/Weenen district in April this year.This is in the same area where earlier this month five rhino were slain by sophisticated poachers who injected them with an overdose of what is suspected to be the M99 drug in Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s Weenen game reserve.Two surviving rhinos were found running around bleeding from where their horns had been neatly sawn off. Provided rifleIt is not, however, alleged by the prosecution that Mlambo and Khumalo are in any way linked to the poaching syndicate believed to be responsible for those attacks. The allegations they face are that they unwittingly negotiated a deal with a man who was really a police agent, during April to shoot a rhino in the Umsuluzi game reserve on the R74 between Weenen and Colenso, so that they could sell the horn to a buyer in Gauteng. Mlambo and Khumalo are alleged to have provided the agent with a .303 hunting rifle fitted with a telescopic sight in order to shoot and kill the rhino on their behalf in the reserve. Asked for comment on whether this was a suitable firearm to hunt rhino, Henk Benade of the SA Hunters and Game Conservation Association’s Durban branch chairperson told The Witness that a .303 was not the correct rifle to use to hunt any of the big five.He said the minimum calibre rifle required to bring down a rhino was a .375.“The .303 would kill a rhino if shot in exactly the right place, but the animal would be more likely to die slowly from a bacterial infection. It would suffer.“The .303 is relatively slow in terms of its velocity. It doesn’t have enough weight behind the bullet to effectively kill the animal. [People] who poach don’t give a damn,” he said.Rhino horn poisonEzemvelo KZN Wildlife spokesperson Musa Mntambo yesterday told The Witness that according to the organisation’s latest figures, a total of 75 rhinos have been slain by poachers so far this year in KZN and 55 people have been arrested and charged in connection with rhino poaching in the province.He said no one has been arrested yet in connection with the latest Weenen poaching incidents.Last month Ezemvelo became the first state conservation agency in Africa to undertake an experiment to poison rhino horns in an attempt to stop the rampant poaching of rhino in its reserves.A toxic infusion - reported to be harmless to rhinos - and which consists of poisonous insecticide and an indelible dye was injected into the horns of rhinos at Tembe Elephant Park and Ndumo game reserve on the Mozambique border. If this proves a deterrent to poaching, EKZNW said it might expand the programme to other game reserves.“More rhinos have now been lost this year than during the whole of 2012. There has been a shocking 5?000% increase in rhino poaching in South Africa since 2007. If poaching continues to escalate at the current rates, rhinos could go extinct by 2026,” was the dire forecast published by the Zululand Wildlife Forum on its Rhino War News webpage.