This is one of the last photographs of British botanists feared kidnapped and brutally murdered in South Africa by an armed gang with links to terrorist group ISIS.
Rod and Rachel Saunders were hiking together in the remote Drakensberg mountains when they were snatched while searching for the seeds of rare flowers which they sell online around the world.
South African police recovered their Land Cruiser 150 miles from where they were last seen and revealed that there were heavy blood stains in the boot and now believe they are dead.
Big Banana Films producer Robin Matthews, who posted the photograph of them being filmed in the mountains, was one of the last to see them alive and blames himself for their abduction
Over £5000 has been emptied from their bank accounts and no word has been heard of either of them since they vanished three weeks ago while in the rolling mountains of Zululand.
Big Banana Films producer Robin Matthews, who posted the photograph of them being filmed in the mountains, was one of the last to see them alive and blames himself for their abduction.
Mr Matthews who spent three days filming with Rod, 73, and Rachel, 64, told the Weekend Argus: ‘I feel incredibly guilty because I told them to go down to Ngoye Forest which is a birders’ and botanists’ paradise.
‘I’ve been there many times and after working with Rod and Rachel I knew they would love it. But their love of plants and nature is what got them into trouble. And that is hard to swallow.
Rod and Rachel Saunders, pictured with BBC presenter Nick Bailey. This photograph was posted online on February 8
‘I think that they are dead and that their bodies are buried somewhere in Ngoye Forest.’
Matthews was facilitating a shoot for the BBC’s Gardeners’ World hosted by horticulturalist and award-winning TV presenter Nick Bailey who posted a pic of himself with Rod and Rachel on Twitter.
Mr Matthews wrapped up shooting with the couple late in the morning on February 8 at the top of Oliviershoek Pass and said they headed towards Bivane Dam where it was thought they were taken.
Although Gardeners Worlds presenter Mr Bailey has remained silent about the kidnapping, a February 8 post on his Twitter account showed one of the last photographs of the kidnap victims.
Of his time spent plant hunting with them in the Drakensberg, Bailey tweeted: ‘The amazing Rod and Rachel Saunders of Silverhill Seeds.
Over £5000 has been emptied from the couple’s bank accounts and no word has been heard of either of them since they vanished three weeks ago while in the rolling mountains of Zululand
‘These guys know their South African native plants and vitally where to find them. They sell an incredible range of seeds online’.
Matthews, however, reveals that during the morning of February 9, Rachel Saunders sent him a WhatsApp photo of a rare gladiolus the couple had found at Bivane Dam.
‘That was the last I heard from them’ said Matthews, a University of Zululand BSc Zoology Honours graduate who lived in nearby Mtunzini and knows KZN’s Ngoye Forest region well.
South Africa’s elite police unit the Hawks believe the couple were kidnapped on February 12 in the vicinity of Bivane Dam near Vryheid in KwaZulu-Natal.
Four days later, following an alert that two suspects on a terror watch list had gone on a spending spree with the Saunders’s credit cards, cops swooped on a Ngoye homestead.
The farmhouse was about 20km outside Mtunzini and arrested Sayfydeen Aslam Del Vecchio, 38, and Fatima Patel, 27, and found an ISIS flag at the premises and ISIS related terrorist propaganda.
On February 26 they arrested a close associate, Themba Xulu, 19, also from Ngoye.
The trio appeared in the Verulam magistrate’s court this week on kidnapping and aggravated robbery charges and various counts under the Protection Of Constitutional Democracy Against Terrorist And Related Activities Act.
Sources close to the investigation revealed that soon after Del Vecchio and Patel’s arrests, cops began tracking Xulu, who was allegedly in possession of cellphones belonging to the Saunders couple.
For more than a week he was kept under surveillance, in the hope he would lead them to the kidnapped pair but when that appeared fruitless, combined with the bloodstains in their 4 x 4, they arrested Xulu.
The Hawks have now made a public appeal for help.
Rod Saunders is British born and met his wife South African born Rachel in England before marrying and moving back to her home town of Cape Town in the 1970s.
Both have dual British and South African nationality.
The couple, who run Silverhill Seeds from their home in Cape Town, are believed to have no children but dote on their two cats. They were due to arrive back home on February 15 but never did.
British security officials have upped calls for vigilance since the kidnap and warn on the Foreign Office official website of ‘likely’ attacks by Islamists on foreigners on holiday in South Africa.
In the updated advice under the Terrorism section in its website they Foreign Office carries a new warning: ‘Terrorists are likely to try to carry out attacks in South Africa.
‘Attacks could be indiscriminate including in places visited by foreigners such as shopping areas in major cities. The main threat is from extremists linked to Daesh (ISIL).
‘In February 2018 two South African-British nationals were kidnapped’.
Martin Hutton-Squire, chairman of the Cape Town division of the Mountain Club South Africa, confirmed the couple were popular members of the club.
He said: ‘They are a delightful couple – they wouldn’t do harm to a fly. I am very disturbed by their disappearance and it is a great tragedy.
‘They were top botanists and great collectors of indigenous seeds which they made available via their online business for people from all around the world to grow plants.
‘They are a very serious couple who know what they are doing when out in the busy – they are not amateurs but know the mountains and the wild and can look after themselves.’