By Ed Stoddard

Blokkies lay dead on the lawn, his glassy eyes staring blankly into space.

The fox terrier had fallen victim to a disturbing phenomenon in crime-plagued South Africa - the poisoning of dogs by criminals intent on gaining access to people's property.

"Imagine what bastards would do this," said Tom van Rooyen, Blokkies' owner, as a police detective dusted for fingerprints in the garage of this farm 140km south-west of Johannesburg.

Blokkies was poisoned by thieves who stole a pick-up lorry from van Rooyen. Another family dog, a 20kg mongrel, survived but spent almost a week recovering at a veterinary clinic.

South Africa has some of the world's highest rates of violent crime, fuelled in part by glaring income disparities and poverty. Official statistics show rates for some of the worst crimes such as murder are falling but remain alarmingly high.

In the affluent suburbs of the main cities, residents live behind high walls, often topped with electric fences or razor wire. Homes are protected by big dogs such as rottweilers or small ones like Jack Russell terriers which make a lot of noise.

This heavy protection feeds a vicious cycle as the desperate resort to increasingly brutal methods to commit their crimes.

"The obstacle is the dog and so they neutralise it," said Boyane Tshehla, the head of the crime and justice programme at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies. Poisoning dogs makes many people see red in South Africa, where the mostly white middle class is hugely fond of pets and animal welfare groups get lots of financial support.

According to the police and animal welfare organisations, the poison of choice used by South African burglars is a pesticide called aldicarb.

"It is also known as 'two-step' because when an animal ingests it, it takes two steps and then goes down," said Christine Kuch, spokesperson for South Africa's National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

"The motive for poisoning in most cases is to commit a crime," she added. The poison is usually mixed with maize or meat and thrown over fences or pushed through gates.

There is no hard data on poisonings as they often go unreported. But some attempt to gather statistics has been made by South Africa's Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute.

Data from confirmed cases at its toxicology unit seemed to indicate that dog poisonings are decreasing, with 88 recorded in 2005 versus 130 in 2002.

But in 2004, the number spiked to 117 from 101 in 2003.

"It happens on a daily basis in South Africa, that I can assure you," said police Superintendent Johan Scott, who has trained detectives in how to investigate such cases."It (dog poisoning) was very high a couple of years ago but seems to have stabilised but at very high levels."

Police have made some progress in cracking down on those responsible. A few months ago, a gang of Mozambicans was arrested in Benoni east of Johannesburg after a spate of dog poisonings and robberies.

Police say burglary syndicates tend to target certain areas and then move on.

Blokkies' death is shot through with a poignancy that exposes the tragedy of South Africa's wider crime problem.

The fox terrier was the last surviving dog of Van Rooyen's brother Michael, who was murdered a few years ago in an attack on his farm, just a short walk down the road.