Government needs to throw every available resource at tackling the country's rhino poaching crisis, or risk losing all credibility, internationally-renowned Eastern Cape wildlife veterinarian Dr William Fowlds has said.
"As a high priority crime, it's high time rhino poaching was prioritised by the president himself, the entire chain of Cabinet ministers, prosecution officials, the judiciary, as well as national and provincial conservation bosses at our public institutions."
He was speaking to News24 on Monday, after the re-arrest of three of South Africa's most notorious rhino poaching suspects - the Ndlovu gang.
"To date, the masterminds behind these illegal wildlife crime syndicates and their well-paid legal representatives have made a mockery of the judicial system and South Africa's formerly proud conservation record."
He said those released on bail were free to continue managing their illicit business.
On Monday, police caught Jabulani Ndlovu, 38, Forget Ndlovu 40, and Sikhumbuzo Ndlovu, 37. Their successful bail application in the Eastern Cape High Court in Grahamstown two weeks ago sparked an outcry over leniency by the courts.
Armed with a fresh warrant for their arrest, signed by a Hoedspruit magistrate, the Stock Theft and Endangered Species Unit arrested them as they exited the Grahamstown court house. Their case had just been postponed and scheduled for trial toward the end of October.
In their second bail bid during April, Judge John Smith agreed to release the Ndlovus on R15 000 bail each, despite the fact that Grahamstown Magistrate Ntsoki Moni had denied them bail in November 2016.
Moni said they had been linked to a spate of rhino poaching cases around the country, and that there was a warrant out for their arrest in Limpopo.
At the time, National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson Tsepo Ndwalaza said that, since the three were arrested, there had been no cases of rhino being poached with a dart gun anywhere in the country.
Despite police having a prima facie case and a detailed report that the Ndlovus were possibly linked to a syndicate responsible for butchering close to 100 rhinos across SA, Judge Smith said he had considered the accused's rights to liberty and justice, and found it in the interests of justice to release them on bail.
The Ndlovus were arrested at a Grahamstown resort in 2016. In their possession police allegedly found a massive rhino horn valued at R1.2m, a darting rifle and drugs used to dart animals, darts, saws and knives, camping gear and rations, two rental cars, and cellphones.
The horn had recently been hacked off a rhino bull that was killed in the nearby Bucklands Private Game Reserve.
The three were described as a highly-organised poaching syndicate, with access to scheduled wildlife darting chemicals and guns. The dart gun was forensically linked to several rhino poaching cases across the country.
On Tuesday, they were taken to Hoedspruit, Limpopo, under police escort. There they will face fresh charges of killing and de-horning rhinos in two separate incidents at a private game reserve. Five rhinos had their horns hacked off while they were still alive.
One of the surviving cows aborted an unborn calf as a result of the trauma. The reserve's owner spent hundreds of thousands of rand to treat the surviving animals.
"I am thrilled that these thugs have been caught at last and that they will be finally brought before our own court in Hoedspruit tomorrow to face charges for killing our rhinos," the owner told News24 on Wednesday.