In the past three years South Africa has experienced a sudden massive upsurge in illegal rhino hunting. And poachers are now using high-tech military style operations to target the endangered animals.
They came in a small helicopter, low over the Tugela Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu/Natal, and they were armed with a dart gun and a dangerous, potent tranquilizer. They zoomed in on the previously identified white rhino cow, with a month-old calf at her side, and fired the powerful drug into the animal's thick hide. She would have sunk unconscious to the ground within minutes. The helicopter landed, and someone got out with a portable electric chainsaw and used it to remove both her horns in one action.
The rhino cow should have died, but did not. On June 25, between three and seven days after the incident, she was discovered together with several other rhino by a patrol. Owner Johan Geldenhuys was summoned.
"I immediately went across and had a look at the animal, and what a horrific sight," he recalled. "We got there and basically from her eyes, just above the eyes was hacked down, right down to just above the lip taken out, and part of her skull, the whole nasal cavity has been cut with the skull and you know she was bleeding through the top end, between her eyes, the holes in the nasal cavity."
Geldenhuys says after consultations and treatment by a vet, they decided not to euthanize the animal because she appeared strong, and calm, and because they hoped the calf was still alive in the vicinity. But he says their hopes for the youngster were shattered a few days later when she was found dead near the spot where she had been born, having succumbed to starvation and dehydration.
The severely mutilated mother remains alive, under close surveillance by Geldenhuys, and continues to improve. He says however, even if she does survive, she will have limitations.
"I reckon she has got a very good chance of surviving, of healing, although she will never be able to breathe, or to smell, to use the function of smell with her nose cavity being gashed out like that on the skull, and I think she will probably breathe through the top end of the nasal cavity below the eyes," he said.
This poaching incident is one of nearly 400 in South Africa since 2008 in which similar methods were used. In 2008 the number of animals killed began increasing exponentially from around a dozen per year.
Experts say most rhino horn is now going to Vietnamese syndicates, whereas before the end-users were predominantly Chinese. Several Vietnamese nationals carrying rhino horn have been arrested in South Africa this year, with one individual convicted and sentenced to 10 years last week. Powdered rhino horn is used in the east in traditional medicines, where it is thought to enhance human virility.