File photo by Reuters.

KwaZulu-Natal - Wildlife officials had their suspicions about one of their rangers being involved in poaching rhino in KwaZulu-Natal. So they set a trap, transferring the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife ranger to the anti-poaching unit where he could be more closely watched.

Eight months later, the trick paid off and, together with members of the Durban Organised Crime Unit, they swooped on the ranger on Friday.

Sifiso Keswa, the head of people and conservation at Ezemvelo, confirmed on Sunday that the arrested ranger had been moved from his field ranger post last year to the anti-poaching unit. This was done so he could be watched more closely, Keswa said.

“We moved the suspect to the anti-poaching unit only because we believed he was more of a threat at iMfolozi. We wanted him monitored by one person. He was moved to Opathi (game reserve).”

It also emerged that one of the rangers who drowned a month ago while crossing the Nhlabane Lake near Richards Bay had also been a rhino poaching suspect and was about to be arrested.

A second man, unrelated to Ezemvelo, was also arrested on Friday. One of the men was picked up in Melmoth and the other in Mtubatuba. Both of their homes were searched for more evidence on Friday.

They will appear in the Mtubatuba Magistrate’s Court on Monday.

Despite this breakthrough, it was a bloody weekend in KZN’s game parks, with three white rhino killed in Hluhluwe and one in iMfolozi.

Friday’s arrests come after an eight-month investigation and were hailed by world-renowned KZN conservationist Ian Player as a victory in the war against rhino poaching.

Player said he was delighted that the poachers had been caught, but would not comment further saying the “law must take its course”.

Despite the recent rhino killings, Player said Ezemvelo was to be congratulated as one of the conservation bodies in the country which was doing “very well” in fighting rhino poaching.

Bandile Mkhize, the chief executive officer of Ezemvelo, said he was “excited” about the arrests.

“I trust these arrests will demonstrate to the public that Ezemvelo is serious about flushing out the rhino poaching syndicates,” he said.

Ezemvelo spokesman Musa Mntambo said the provincial rhino security implementation plan was bearing fruit and Project Rhino was consolidating the anti-poaching the efforts of private game ranch owners and Ezemvelo.

Over the past year, 12 poachers had been arrested with six successful convictions. The others were awaiting trial.

Rangers confronted four poachers at the Ndumo Game Reserve on Saturday night. A shoot-out ensued and the poachers, who fled, dropped their weapons which were confiscated.

Since January, 29 rhinos had been poached in the province. At least two other rangers were arrested over the past year for their involvement in some of the killings.

Jabulane Ngubane, Ezemvelo’s Rhino Protection Security co-ordinator, said he expected imminent arrests relating to this weekend’s rhino killings.

Mkhize appealed to the public to contribute towards the anti-rhino poaching efforts by SMSing the word “SAVE” to 44135 at a cost of R1.50 to help Ezemvelo raise funds to fight “these professional syndicates” who are using “sophisticated poaching equipment”. - The Mercury