Durban - KwaZulu-Natal conservation authorities have reacted with fury and disbelief after the SAPS arrested three members of a crack anti-rhino poaching unit (APU) for the alleged murder of a suspected poacher on Christmas Day.

The three men had cancelled their celebrations to protect rhinos at uMkhuze Game Reserve in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park in Zululand, while other staff members were given the opportunity to spend the day with their families.

Acting chief executive of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Dr David Mabunda, told The Independent on Saturday he was “surprised the SAPS decided to charge the field rangers who killed a suspected poacher when their lives were in danger.

“I plan to meet with the national police commissioner, General Rhiya Phiyega, to set up a protocol to handle these matters. Poachers are getting away with murder, while law enforcement agencies are at war with each other. The arrest of the rangers doesn’t make sense. I’m furious.

“We will allow the law to take its course and we will spare no resources on providing legal support to our rangers and also emotional support by referring them to counselling once they are released.”

iSimangaliso chief executive, Andrew Zaloumis, echoed Mabunda’s words and said his organisation would also take the matter up with the SAPS provincial Commissioner Lieutenant-General Mmamonnye Ngobeni.

“Field rangers are at the hard-edge of anti-rhino poaching work and are faced with an increasingly difficult task; more so when seemingly arbitrary arrests of those who have had to actively engage with poachers are made.

“Full support is given by iSimangaliso to Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife field-rangers undertaking anti-rhino poaching work in the Park, who are operating within the law, follow established procedures and are designated environmental law enforcement officials (green scorpions).

“An attorney briefed by iSimangaliso Wetlands Park Authority and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, yesterday succeeded in launching an urgent bail application for the arrested staff.”

The application will be heard in the Ubombo Magistrate’s Court this morning.

Colonel Jay Naicker of the SAPS’ KZN media-centre said: “Jozini police attended to the incident at about 2.30pm on Christmas Day.

The three rangers were arrested for murder. Police seized three R1 rifles.

“It is alleged by the rangers at the game reserve that the man was poaching in the reserve, when he was killed by guards while fleeing. It is alleged he was unarmed and had surrendered when he was killed”.

Asked how a dead man would be able to tell detectives he had surrendered before he was shot, he said: “Obviously we will have to wait for the matter to be fully investigated and the docket presented in court.”

According to Ezemvelo’s spokesman, Musa Mntambo, the rangers were arrested before a thorough investigation.

“We opened our own case of poaching with the SAPS only yesterday and we expect justice will prevail this morning.

“On Thursday, field rangers on patrol near Ephaki encountered an armed group of about three suspected poachers who were carrying an axe and a heavy-calibre rifle. The poachers fled, and the rangers pursued them.

“The uMkhuze anti-poaching unit was mobilised, and responded by closing all escape routes. Two APU members walking toward the park came in contact with three suspected poachers, and a shoot-out with the suspected poachers followed.

“During armed contact, one suspected poacher was killed, and the SAPS was notified.”

This year ranks as the darkest for South Africa’s rhino population.

Last year, 1 004 were reported killed.

By the time the poaching books are closed on December 31, the tally could exceed 1 200 for 2014, in the country alone.

Field rangers and anti-poaching units were on high-alert on Thursday, following the discovery of a poached black rhino cow and her calf at the Zululand Rhino reserve on Christmas Eve.

The young calf is believed to have died of natural causes. - The Independent on Saturday