Game ranger Bester Scheepers with his loyal four-legged companions.

Durban - A Hluhluwe game farm manager has been hailed as a hero after taking on a gang of five heavily armed suspected poachers using nothing but his bare hands.

The life and death scuffle resulted in Bester Scheepers apprehending two of the poachers with the help of his guards, and has made him an overnight sensation on social networking sites.

The drama unfolded last week when Scheepers was notified by a senior ranger of a possible poacher incursion into the farm.

Five fresh sets of footprints had been discovered inside the farm’s perimeter fence and the farm guards, carrying only knobkieries and two-way radios, had been following the tracks for four hours.

“I was unarmed when my tracking dogs and I rendezvoused with the guards,” said Scheepers. “We split into separate groups and followed the tracks through the bush for quite a few hours.”

Eventually they spotted five heavily armed men resting under trees close to a wallow where rhinos frequently visit.

Scheepers said that the men had been camouflaged by dense foliage.

“We had no weapons to fire even a warning shot, so my instincts told me we had to take them by surprise,” he said.

“Luckily I have military experience, and when I saw the rifle and huge axe, I knew we had no option but to disarm them.

“I tackled the one nearest the leader who had the rifle. It was a hectic fight.”

Scheepers’s colleagues then came to his assistance.

“Three of the gang ran away, one was trying to bite me, the dogs were barking, and my colleague, Skambuzo, was wrestling another who was trying to stab him with a screwdriver.

“We rumbled like crazy for about five minutes before we overpowered them, and I damaged my hand really badly. The poachers were so exhausted, they just lay there while we secured their arms behind their backs with belts and bootlaces.”

A Winchester 458 hunting rifle fitted with a silencer, four cartridges, an axe, hi-tech night-hunting lights, cellphones and changes of clothing were recovered from the suspects.

“I dread to think what might have happened had we not tracked them down,” said Bester. “It’s just ridiculous how difficult the government has made it for us to carry firearms. I passed my competency test more than four months ago, but at the police station I was told they had no record of my licence application.”

Senzo Myamirie, 30, a Mozambican national, and Mthokozi Mlambo, 19, a South African, are facing charges of possession of an unlicensed firearm, illegal hunting and trespassing.

A source told the Tribune that a charge of conspiracy to poach rhino might also be added to the docket. The recovered rifle has been sent for ballistics testing.

At least 660 rhinos have fallen under the poacher’s axe this year, so for many the news of Scheepers’s exploits was a breath of fresh air. Scores took to Facebook and Twitter to offer encouragement.

“Give the man a Bell’s!” wrote one Facebook user.

“Way to go. Hero,” said another.

There were also messages encouraging ordinary citizens to follow Scheepers’s example and to play a role in the war against poaching.

“It was wonderful news to hear of this heroic act,” said conservationist Ian Player, who has been involved in numerous run-ins with poachers during his 60-year career. “It takes great courage for an unarmed man to tackle a heavily armed poaching group, particularly as we all know how quickly the poachers take to shooting.

“This man took his life in his own hands, aided by his game scout, to prove his dedication. He is an example to all of us in the conservation world. He and his team deserve medals.”

Sunday Tribune