Durban - For two years wildlife managers have been chopping the horns off all the adult rhinos at a private game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal in a desperate attempt to protect them from poachers.

But there were two young rhinos whose tiny horn stumps were considered too small to be of much value. So rangers decided to leave them alone for now.

But poachers had other ideas, and early this week both rhinos were destroyed swiftly and silently by sophisticated killers armed with dart guns and drugs instead of rifles and noisy bullets.

Clarke Smith, the spokesman for the Nambiti private game reserve near Ladysmith, confirmed on Tuesday that the carcasses of both sub-adult rhinos were found early on Monday with the emerging horns cut off.

However, two older rhinos in the same group – but which had been dehorned recently by reserve managers – were not harmed.

“These guys are clearly very sophisticated because they seemed to know exactly which two animals to target and where to find them in a reserve where the adults rhinos have been dehorned already,” said Smith.

“We also found a dart at the scene which suggests that they were killed with an overdose of M99 (a veterinary drug used to immobilise wildlife).”

Smith said the poachers had also taken advantage of the full moon to hunt at night and did not appear to have chopped the reserve fence or left obvious tracks on the ground.

“This has been a dreadful experience. On one hand we seem to be doing the right thing because none of the dehorned rhinos were targeted. So we still think that dehorning is the right way to go. Yet we may have to rethink our strategy.

“We have to ask ourselves at what stage you need to remove a horn. We felt these two animals were still too young. Have we come to the point where we now have to chop off the horns while they are still babies?”

The latest killings at Nambiti have raised the national death toll for rhinos to well over 100 in less than two months. Government statistics released early last week suggest that at least 102 rhinos have been killed, mostly in the Kruger National Park.

The latest deaths at Nambiti mean that at least 14 rhinos have been killed in KZN this year, including a white rhino found poached and dehorned at Ndumo game reserve on Tuesday last week. - The Mercury