Durban - Despite a legal supply of horns from private farmers having been released on the domestic market, the latest poaching figures gathered from around the country indicate staggering numbers of rhinos continue to be killed illegally by heavily armed poaching gangs.
Nowhere is this more evident than in KwaZulu-Natal, where a fresh wave of rhino killings swept across the province's game parks last month, leaving more rhinos slaughtered in a single month than ever before.
According to informed sources, massive security lapses coupled with increasingly mobile and well-equipped poachers led to the highest monthly total of poached rhinos ever recorded.
Before the month of September had ended, 36 rhinos had been butchered for their horns in KZN over a period of 29 or fewer days.
Most of the incidents occurred in the killing fields at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (HiP), home to the founding population of the southern white rhino.
In the Natal midlands at Weenen Game Reserve, poachers recently shot and killed three rhinos that had been dehorned last year, mutilating their faces for what little stumps remained.
Adding cause for concern, poaching gangs appear to have infiltrated Ezemvelo's training and park ranger recruitment processes.
Speaking to a group of journalists last month, MEC for the Department of Economic Development and Tourism, Sihle Zikalala confirmed two staff members had been dismissed earlier this year.
"We are going to be focusing on ensuring that people who are working for Ezemvelo are not collaborating with the syndicates" he said.
Responding to News24's inquiry around their dismissal, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife spokesperson, Musa Mntambo said: "Two HiP rangers were dismissed after investigations discovered that due to their negligence, confidential information was leaked to people who could have used it against us. I am not prepared to divulge the details of these cases".
"The information was classified," he said.
193 rhinos killed to date
By keeping a tight lid on such critical information, he raised further questions and suspicions about the wildlife conservation authority's mandate, and transparency when dealing with matters of public interest.
By September 29, 193 rhinos had been killed to date, a staggering new record number, with more cases still to be recorded and numbers reportedly rising.
At the time of going to press a week later, Mntambo remained tight-lipped when asked whether any additional carcasses had been discovered.
Nonetheless, it was already evident that the current total of rhino mortalities had surpassed last year's total recorded for the first nine months, by about 75.
Furthermore, 2016's record total of 162 rhinos slaughtered has been erased, and with nearly three full months left in the calendar year, projections indicate KZN could lose as many as 260-280 pachyderms (rhinos) by the end of December.
A special anti-poaching task team announced by the KZN provincial executive council last year is expected to submit its report to the provincial cabinet by the end of this month.
In a recent discussion with the team’s head and special advisor to the premier, John Wills, it emerged that Ezemvelo’s current anti-poaching systems are in need of a major overhaul to turn the tide and bolster the fight against rhino poaching.
The team's report will include a full assessment of the current measures and capacities of the anti-rhino poaching initiatives in the province, as well as a critically needed report on the criminal justice processes in relation to poaching incidents.
Without giving away the report's findings prematurely, Wills agreed better trained prosecutors and magistrates were urgently needed to make a difference in the courts, and more intensive training in crime-scene investigations needed to be implemented for police to overcome "sloppy" docket preparations.
Four suspects arrested
Meanwhile, a successful intelligence operation by the members of the Eastern Cape Stock Theft and Endangered Species Unit resulted in the arrest of four suspected Mozambican rhino poachers at the weekend, and the seizure of their tools of death.
It is believed the group had been under surveillance before they were pulled over on the R67 road between Fort Beaufort and Queenstown in the early hours of Sunday morning.
Eastern Cape SAPS spokesperson Mali Govender, said four males, aged between 20 and 30 years, were arrested at a vehicle check-point near Balfour.
When unit members searched the suspects' vehicle, they found a heavy calibre .458 hunting rifle concealed under the vehicle's dash-board, as well as a silencer, eight rounds of ammunition and an axe.
The Mozambicans are alleged to be in South Africa illegally, and were unable to provide any legal travel documentation or immigration paper work when they were arrested. The Gauteng registered vehicle they were travelling in has also been impounded.
The suspects will appear in the Alice Magistrate's Court this week where they face charges of illegal possession of an unlicensed firearm, and ammunition.