THREE white rhinos were found dead and a fourth, pregnant and barely alive, had to be shot by a game ranger after they were poisoned and dehorned by poachers.
The grisly discovery at the Lalibela Game Reserve near Grahamstown yesterday came only three days after the Hawks were removed from the Eastern Cape's anti-poaching team – and four days after World Rhino Day.
The hulking carcasses of one cow and two bulls, as well as the nearly dead pregnant cow, were found during a game drive by a group a tourists and their guide just after 8am.
It is believed the rhinos were shot with poison darts some time on Tuesday night. Empty dart cartridges were found scattered around the scene.
So far, 394 rhinos have been poached since January, with the Kruger National Park having lost 241. This is just 54 short of the 488 rhinos killed last year.
The horns of the four rhinos had been "clinically" sawed off and the carcasses were in a straight line at 10m intervals. The carcasses were about 500m from the N2.
Upset Lalibela head game ranger Kelly Pote described the scene as "brutally devastating".
The traumatised tourists were immediately taken back to the lodge.
Pote was forced to shoot the pregnant cow to end her suffering. "I did not want her to suffer. I really had no choice. It was not an easy decision."
She said the rhino was foaming at the mouth and kept kicking her back legs.
This was the second rhino poaching incident in the Eastern Cape this year.
In March, three rhinos died after their horns were hacked off by poachers at the Kariega Private Game Reserve.
In KwaZulu-Natal, two rhino carcasses were found decomposing on two separate game farms on Sunday.
The slaughter at Lalibela shocked the staff and management.
"Nothing can prepare you for this. It is terrible. A sad day for Lalibela. Everyone is devastated," marketing manager Vernon Wait said.
He said the rhinos were a huge attraction for the reserve, but he doubted more rhinos would be bought.
"This poaching is a cancer in our society. For some people here it is like losing a loved one. The rhinos were that important to us," he said.
Eastern Cape anti-poaching intelligence coordinator Rodney Visser confirmed that darts loaded with an unknown drug had been used to disable and kill the animals.
"The darts were found at the crime scene and sent for forensic testing."
Visser said there had been reports of an unidentified, low-flying aircraft spotted above the game reserve on Tuesday night. The game reserve is a no-fly zone.
According to inside sources, the Hawks were ordered to withdraw from the anti- rhino poaching task team on Monday.
The crack team consists of the Green Scorpions, the National Wildlife Reaction Unit, SA National Parks and eight private game reserves.
Provincial police spokeswoman Brigadier Marinda Mills said it was "common practice" for task teams to be disbanded.
"This is always a temporary measure or structure to address a specific challenge," she said.
The task team was created after a spike in rhino poaching last year.
"These cases have been finalised and the task team members resumed their normal duties within the Hawks," Mills said.
However, they would still assist with rhino-poaching investigations.
Hawks spokesman Colonel Macintosh Polela admitted the scourge of rhino poaching was getting worse in South Africa.
"It seems the syndicates are working on killing the rhino and are doing more damage at the moment. We have to up our efforts to try to bring down the numbers."
Rhino horn has been used in Asia in traditional medicine for thousands of years, mostly as a palliative to reduce fevers and purge the body of toxins.
South Africa is Vietnam's primary source of rhino horn, which is used today to treat ailments such as cancer, high blood pressure and impotence.
The increasingly sophisticated weapons and tactics that rhino poachers use suggest they are getting help from corrupt wildlife officials, according to a report released last month.
The South Africa-Vietnam Rhino Horn Trade Nexus report states that rhinos are traditionally killed with AK-47 assault rifles, but a growing number are being killed with weapons usually used by wildlife industry professionals.