"So far [this year]… we have lost more than 500 rhino. [As of] yesterday [Monday], the figure was at 549… The problem is still increasing," environmental affairs deputy director-general Fundisile Mketeni said.
Responsible for biodiversity and conservation in his department, Fundisile was briefing members of Parliament's environmental affairs portfolio committee.
According to figures tabled at Tuesday's briefing, there has been a sharp increase in poaching activity in recent months. They show 25 rhino were illegally killed for their horns in June this year.
This rose to 49 in July, 63 in August, 62 in September, and 75 last month. So far this month, 40 rhino have been killed.
Democratic Alliance MP Gareth Morgan said the figures were worrying.
"I'm deeply concerned about the high number of poachers. I'd really hoped we'd turn the tide in 2012… I'm particularly worried about the November figures, which look — at the current rate — like this will be the biggest month in 2012."
Morgan asked if something unique had happened in recent weeks that might explain such a "spike" in rhino poaching.
Responding, Mketeni told him: "Honestly, it's difficult to say what is happening."
He said the department would examine its records to see if there was a similar spike in previous years.
Sanparks chief executive officer David Mabunda told the committee the situation was complex.
"We indeed accept there is a challenge. Resources have been made available and arrests have increased, but the numbers of rhino killed have not decreased. It's a very complex situation."
He said SA National Defence Force troops, sent to the Kruger National Park to help stop poaching, were only deployed along the southern half of the flagship reserve's eastern border with Mozambique.
"They are not yet active from Masinga Dam to Crook's Corner [the northern point of the park]. So that is still an open area that is not monitored by the defence force, to give us the first line of defence before we can deal with the poaching inside the park."
However, there were gangs of poachers operating out of villages on the Mozambican side of this area, Mabunda said.
This section of the park's boundary is understood to coincide with the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, proclaimed a decade ago. The international boundary fence in this area, which separated the two countries, was dropped at that time.
"On the Mozambican side, there are 38 villages that dot the Limpopo valley, from the Zimbabwean border to the Komati River, where in some instances unemployment is 100 percent," Mabunda said.
"In [some of] these villages… there are known gangs of poachers operating in that area. They are in another country, and we are not able to go in there and deal with the problem."
Mabunda said he hoped once a buffer zone agreement had been signed between the South African and Mozambican governments, they would be able to work with the Mozambicans and deal with the problem.
"In any given day, we experience between 15 and 20 attacks anywhere along that boundary."
Mabunda said there was a need to "deploy technology" to give "early warning detection" of poachers, and allow troops to move in on them.
Removing the fence along this section of the park's eastern boundary was not necessarily a mistake.
"I don't think fences solve problems," he said.
According to figures tabled at the briefing, 224 poachers have been arrested so far this year. A total of 232 were arrested last year, and 165 in 2010.
Over the past six months, 39 people have been convicted for rhino poaching or related crimes. Many of these have been Mozambican nationals.
Last week, a Thai national was given a 40-year sentence for selling rhino horn. Chumlong Lemtongthai pleaded guilty to 59 counts in the Kempton Park Magistrate's Court, including, among others, illegally exporting about 26 rhino horns, trading in rhino horn, breaching the Customs and Excise Act, and tax fraud.
According to environmental affairs, of the more than 1600 rhino killed by poachers over the past five years, more than half have been killed in the Kruger National Park. – Sapa