KwaZulu-Natal's famous white rhinos have been upstaged by a bunch of dassies - a tiny species of rabbit-like rock dwellers.

While the price of white rhinos tumbled this weekend at the annual KwaZulu-Natal game auction, dassies notched up a new South African record price.

The sharp drop in bids for white rhinos has been attributed to the stronger rand and the abundance of these animals in private hands.

Overall, less than R10-million was raised at the auction, with white rhinos contributing just R3,6 million to the final tally.

KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife, which sells "surplus" animals every year, had been hoping to raise about R20-million.

Buyers from around the country gathered at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park on Saturday for South Africa's premier wild animal auction - but more than a quarter of the white rhino were withdrawn after disappointing bids.

The average price this year for this species was just over R120 000 apiece, considerably lower than the 2002 average of R230 000.

Rescued from near extinction by the Natal Parks Board in the early 60s, the white rhino population has recovered rapidly and can now be hunted legally, subject to permit restrictions.

Commenting on the price dip, auctioneer Willie Roux said it seemed there were now so many white rhino in private hands that few buyers were prepared to pay high prices.

He also cited the strong rand against the dollar, in reference to the fact that demand for white rhino trophies was driven largely by American hunters.

Nevertheless, new South African record prices were set for three species - common duiker (R4 750 each), ostrich (R3 600) and dassies (R450).

This was the first time dassies were on sale in KwaZulu-Natal.

Estcourt private game reserve owner and former Democratic Alliance/African Christian Democratic Party politician Graham McIntosh was among the buyers bidding for the 50 dassies on sale.

Interest in nyala antelope was keen and this species boosted the provincial conservation agency's depleted coffers by almost R1,7-million. The average price was R6 000, with the price for a trophy-horned bull reaching R13 500.

A dozen hippo from Ndumo game reserve were knocked down for R31 000 each, while three black rhino males fetched a disappointing total of R395 000 collectively.

Meanwhile, South African farmers have no reason to fear Zimbabwe-style land seizures, according to KwaZulu-Natal farming minister Gabriel Ndabandaba.

"No one will ever take your land by force... I can assure you that we will never have a Zimbabwe situation," Ndabandaba told game farmers at the auction.

His remarks followed recent reports that several game farms and conservancies in Zimbabwe had been earmarked for seizure.

The minister also announced the retirement of Victor Nzimande as chairman of the board of Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife.