A haunting photo of a de-faced rhino taken in Kruger National Park days ago has led to a massive search for the maimed animal - and has sparked online outrage across the world.
Its horns were deeply hacked off, below their base, exposing bloody tissue, and it is believed that the animal - if still alive - would be in agony.
Leading conservationist Dr Ian Player, who said on Sunday the cruelty of the suspected poachers was “personally wounding”, warned that the incident could damage South Africa’s tourism industry.
“This terrible incident, which is emotionally disturbing, is a cry that goes out into the world for the fate of the rhino,” the former ranger said.
Since the beginning of the year, 146 rhinos have been slaughtered for their horns across South Africa.
An intensive aerial and ground search was launched on Friday after visitors to the Kruger park reported seeing a wounded rhino wandering along a road near the Phabeni Gate, near Hazyview and about 60km from the border with Mozambique.
Several teams of rangers with sniffer-dogs and a helicopter surveillance crew were deployed to find the animal and track the poachers, but by late Sunday night they had not been successful, said SANParks’ acting spokesman, Reynold Thakhuli.
The rhino was yet to be found by Monday morning, said Johan Jooste, a retired major-general who is now the commanding officer of special projects at the park.
Rain and thick bush were making it hard to search.
Thakhuli would not release details of the people who saw the wounded rhino, saying it would be a breach of policy.
“We have the photograph, but I am not at liberty to disclose details,” he said yesterday.
The photo of the maimed animal was posted on Facebook on Friday and soon spread on the internet, eliciting thousands of emotional pleas from around the world for an end to rhino poaching.
Vienna film-maker, Reina-Marie Loader, who spent three months in South Africa last year filming her soon-to-be-released documentary, Horn, sent out an emotional plea after posting the photograph on her Facebook page.
“I am in tears over this, as I know the area well,” said Loader, who was born in South Africa.
“The cruelty of human beings against themselves and other living beings is just incredible and incomparable. I say against themselves as well because poachers who are capable of doing this to an animal must destroy parts of themselves in the process as well,” she said. “And that saddens me more deeply than words can say.”
Player, who co-established The WILD Foundation in 1974 to try to save the white rhino and is one of the founders of the Natal Parks Board, now Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, said he was deeply hurt by the latest attack on rhinos.
“I have devoted my life to them. I find it particularly, personally wounding,” he said.
“My life has been bound up with the rhinos since 1952 and I was personally responsible for getting them to the Kruger Park.”
Jooste said rangers had gone to the area of the sighting but could not locate the rhino.
“There has been rain on and off, which has made it difficult to find tracks, but parks personnel have not had a sighting of the animal,” he said. Jooste said there had not been much poaching at the park since January when 65 rhino carcasses were discovered.
“We’ve had a reasonable month in February, compared to January. We don’t claim victory, we don’t say it’s a trend or anything, but February has been a better month than most of the past year,” he said.
According to the Department of Environmental Affairs, there were 30 rhino deaths reported in the Kruger National Park in February.
Asked if there were signs of progress and co-operation with wildlife counterparts in Mozambique, Jooste said: “I would say all in all, yes. With the police this last week, there was a successful operation in the Limpopo National Park, and down south at the Sabie Game Reserve, the rangers did a hell of a job. In both instances, the co-operation with the police was good.”
Kruger National Park has been the epicentre of rhino poaching since 2008, and accounted for 606 of the 1004 rhino poached last year.
Conservationists have forecast that the tipping point towards extinction of the species has already been reached, with mortalities from poaching already exceeding the birth rate.