Durban - Nine fresh rhino carcasses have been found massacred at the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, South Africa’s oldest game reserve and the cradle of global rhino conservation.
The mid-week massacre confirms fears that the historical park has become the new ground zero in the battle to save the species, rapidly matching casualties sustained by Kruger National Park.
This is despite the fact the domestic ban on rhino horn trade was effectively lifted when the Constitutional Court, in April, rejected a government appeal to preserve a 2009 ban on the domestic trade
Conservationists have warned that the lifting of the moratorium would spell a full-out onslaught by illegal poaching syndicates, putting the country's already battered rhino population at further huge risk.
Two suspected poachers from Hazyview in Mpumalanga have recently been arrested, and a .375 calibre hunting rifle has been recovered. It is not immediately clear whether the two were caught in the reserve, or outside the perimeter fence.
All traces of the missing horns have disappeared, raising the spectre that multiple groups of poachers were involved in the latest incidents which occurred during the full moon cycle known as "poachers' moon"
Authorities are still scouring the park for further possible losses, just a day after Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW) confirmed 14 more rhinos had fallen to poachers’ bullets and machetes earlier in the month.
The latest figures have catapulted the total of poached rhinos to 23 in just 12 days in KZN alone.
Signs of the mid-week massacre were reported to News24 on Friday, but only confirmed by Ezemvelo earlier on Saturday morning.
Ezemvelo officials were initially reluctant to announce the massacre yesterday, but late on Friday night Ezemvelo spokesperson Musa Mntambo acknowledged a number of crime scenes were being investigated.
“We are waiting for field reports to determine whether they were poached rhinos, or whether any them died of natural causes" he said.
On Saturday morning Mntambo confirmed the massacre, and revealed eight rhinos were found killed at iMfolozi, and one dead at Hluhluwe.
All 18 horns had been removed by the poaching gangs.
According to Ezemvelo’s official 2017 count, 89 rhino have been poached in KZN so far this year.
In contrast, 55 rhino were butchered for their horns by May 7th last year - making this year's figures 48% higher than numbers recorded for the same period last year.
Mntambo attributed the latest spike to information indicating a sharp increase in the number of Mpumalanga poaching syndicates that were now targeting Zululand reserves.
Last year provincial government said it was appointing a new anti-rhino poaching task team to conduct a full assessment of the measures and capacities of rhino anti-poaching initiatives in KZN.
The task team included representatives from Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the SAPS, the premier's office, an international policing expert and a legal expert from the Ian Player Foundation.
At a Finance Portfolio Committee mid-year review Ezemvelo said the battle against rhino poaching was becoming harder in the wake of budget cuts.
Ezemvelo board chairman Advocate Comfort Ngidi reportedly told the committee that budget cuts were having a devastating impact on operations.
The Democratic Alliance’s Francois Rodgers, who is on the committee, said at the time that he was worried that the fight against poaching could not be won under these conditions, and there there was no indication on how the plan to fight poaching would be rolled out.
Following the recent massacre, Rodgers again slammed the provincial government for failing to adequately protect the endangered species, and said the latest spike is more than cause for alarm.
"This raises huge concerns around the safety and security of our rhino population, and I will be forcefully taking this up on Monday ” he said.
"The... government’s efforts to stem the onslaught in KwaZulu Natal have amounted to naught. Without concrete plans and policies in place, and an actionable offensive, any so-called conservation strategy is nothing more than a potpourri of bureaucracy and a shop full of talking heads.
“This latest massacre of our rhinos at the province’s flagship park points to government’s pathetically poor response to thwart organized crime and ignoring the needs of our much under-resourced conservation organisation, Ezemvelo KZNW," Rodgers said.
"You just have to look at the statistics of rhinos that are getting killed in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi at the moment. It’s absolutely shocking and unacceptable. With those numbers, I rest my case."