SANParks says with almost no rhinos left in the area, poachers are coming for the ivory.

The first sign of the crime scene was the tip of an elephant’s trunk lying in the grass; the second was the gag-inducing, sickly sweet smell of death; and the third was the buzzing of thousands of bluebottle flies taking off as South African National Parks’ (SANParks) environmental crime scene investigators approached.

Among them was Colonel Leonard Malatji, the former detective branch commander of Phalaborwa police station. When he retired, he started working for SANParks and yesterday in the Kruger National Park Vlakteplaats section, he was the lead investigator in a three-week old elephant poaching case.

About 50km north of the Tropic of Capricorn, deep inside a sealedoff section of Vlakteplaats lay the carcass. It was not much more than a bag of skin and bones with its face hacked off for its prized ivory tusks.

One field ranger, who may not be named to protect his identity, estimated the dead bull was between 30 and 40 years old. He would have had sizeable tusks. Malatji and his team prepared to do an autopsy on what was left of the pachyderm.

“With almost no rhinos left in the area, poachers are coming for the ivory now,” he said.

Malatji has also attended to more than 20 rhino poaching scenes this year and there’s another poached elephant about six kilometres south of this one waiting for him. In their green SANParks uniforms and wearing only rubber gloves for protection but not masks, his team dismantled the putrefying carcass.

With a small butcher’s knife to carve through the thick skin and a winch mounted on an all-terrain vehicle to pull it off the skeleton, Malatji worked methodically from back to front.

An hour later, elbow-deep in liquid goo, he emerged with proof the animal was shot with a heavy-calibre weapon: a shattered rib clearly showing the passage of the bullet.