Two men posing as tourists booked into a South African lodge, drove off to view the wildlife -- and proceeded to shoot two endangered white rhino bulls and hack off their horns, officials said.
The men were arrested after pulling off their audacious crime in the famed Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park and have been linked to a national syndicate targeting the endangered animals, South African conservation officials said Tuesday.
“It’s the first time we’ve ever had poachers posing as tourists in one of our game parks,” said Jeff Gaisford, spokesman for KZN Wildlife, the conservation arm of the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government.
The suspects, who cannot be named until they appear in court, had four rhino horns, three illegal firearms, ammunition and knives that were believed to have been used to remove the rhinos’ horns when they were arrested last Wednesday.
They had been under surveillance because of intelligence provided by the police but were not followed for a three-hour period to prevent them from becoming suspicious. During that time they are believed to have shot the animals.
KZN Wildlife said in a statement that further arrests were expected.
There have been no recorded rhino poaching incidents in KwaZulu-Natal for several years, though there have been periodic reports of the practice elsewhere in the country.
The suspects had booked into the upmarket Hilltop Camp at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi with commanding views of the rugged park, which became a refuge for the white rhino a century ago when only a few dozen were left.
Conservation efforts allowed the white rhino to storm back from the brink of extinction. The southern sub-species now numbers over 11,000 but is still considered to be endangered by some environmentalists.
There are around 3,700 of the smaller but more aggressive African black rhinos, whose numbers are also recovering.
The animals are hunted illegally for their horns, which fetch high prices in Yemen, where they are prized for making dagger handles, and in the Far East, where they are coveted for their supposed medicinal qualities.