June 5 (UPI) -- An elite South African crime-fighting unit captured two accused rhino poaching kingpins following a two-year investigation, authorities said Tuesday.
The unit, called the Hawks, arrested Mandla Mashele, 37, and Kelvin Malapane. 38, and charged them with illegally purchasing four rhino horns.
Mashele and Malapane appeared in court last week‚ just days after their arrest, officials said. Their second court appearance is set for July 13.
"We're in a campaign to save our wildlife‚" South Africa wildlife executive Fundisile Nketine said. "We have a strategy, and come 2019‚ we want to see the number of rhinos killed annually reduced to under 400."
Col. Johan Jooste, who leads South Africa National Parks' anti-poaching unit, called the arrests "significant."
"We made a paradigm shift in terms of not referring to it as poaching but as wildlife trafficking and to address the whole criminal supply chain," Jooste said."In this specific incident, we have looked at the smuggling of rhino horn from the parks into the greater areas."
Also Tuesday, three men pleaded not guilty in a separate case to more than 50 poaching-related charges. Authorities said they harvested more than a dozen rhino horns over a period of five years.
Jabulani Ndlovu‚ 40‚ Forget Ndlovu‚ 37 and Sikhumbuzo Ndlovu‚ 38‚ are charged with theft‚ hunting or killing endangered rhinos without a permit‚ unlawful possession of tranquilizer opioid agents and illegal possession of ammunition.
South Africa is home to about 80 percent of the world's roughly 30,000 rhinos. Last year alone, more than 1,000 were killed by poachers -- compared to just 13 in 2016.