Against an expanse of blue sky and wide open space, a single bull rhino is seen in the Aquila Game Reserve in the Western Cape.

Just six weeks into the new year, at least 54 rhinos have been slaughtered for their horns.

If the killing continues at this rate, it is expected that by the end of the year at least 450 rhinos will have been killed by criminal syndicates.

Releasing statistics for the first 44 days of the year, SA National Parks said yesterday afternoon that 52 rhinos had been killed. But barely an hour later The Mercury received information that two more rhinos had been poached at a private game lodge near Hluhluwe in KwaZulu-Natal.

Last night, Chicks Game Lodge co-owner Christine Ballantyne confirmed that a white rhino cow and 16-month-old calf had been shot and dehorned on Sunday night.

According to SANParks, most of the killings were in the Kruger National Park, where 26 rhinos were poached, followed by Limpopo, where 13 were poached.

More than 180 field rangers have been on strike in Kruger National Park for the past 10 days, over wages.

In KwaZulu-Natal, six rhinos have been killed (this appears to exclude the two latest deaths at Chicks Game Lodge).

Last week, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife also confirmed that two white rhino carcasses had been found close together in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park on Wednesday. A third white rhino was poached in the Ndumo reserve on Thursday.

In both cases, the carcasses were found shortly after the animals had been shot. The poachers had fled before they could remove horns from two of the three rhinos.

The latest deaths bring to at least 950 the number of rhinos poached since January 2009.

The CEO of SANParks, Dr David Mabunda, said: “It is worrying that we are still losing such a high number of rhinos throughout the country. The most encouraging area in this whole saga is the increasing number of arrests and the steeper sentences that are being imposed.

“The difficulty is pinning a suspected criminal to the crime because we are dealing with very wily, sophisticated individuals.”

Countrywide, about 30 poachers have been arrested this year, most in North West and Mpumalanga.

Shaun Smillie reports that a joint police and animal protection group operation in North West yesterday resulted in the arrests of five suspected poachers, including a man believed to be the head of the syndicate.

The arrests, according to the chairman of the Private Rhino Owners’ Association, Pelham Jones, means the police now have the last members of a syndicate that has been operating in the area near Assen. Jones said the police, acting on a tip-off, waited for the suspects. At about 12.40am on Tuesday they were spotted driving on an isolated road near an area known to hold rhino, and an attempt was made to arrest them, Jones said.

Shots were fired at the police and in the shoot-out, one suspect was wounded three times.

After the arrests a .458 calibre rifle, used on large game, was found.

Also found in the vehicle were 14 rounds of solid .458 calibre ammunition, preferred in shooting animals like elephant and rhino. There was also a 9mm handgun.

The police confirmed the operation, but did not want to give details.