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Durban - A suspected poacher has been killed and five others arrested after a shoot-out with security guards at a Zululand game reserve.

Shots were first heard at the Thula Thula Private Game Reserve at about 7am on Tuesday, said employee, Vusi Gumede.

This alerted security guards on patrol who went to investigate. After following footprints, the security guards spotted five men and pursued them.

Gumede said the guards told him they had found five suspected poachers as they tried to escape under the electric fence. He said the men opened fire on the guards, shooting one four times.

The guards retaliated, killing one of the suspects. The others escaped, leaving behind a .303 rifle.

Gumede said the injured guard was in a stable condition in hospital.

Police arrived at the reserve at about 9am. After visiting in the nearby Ntambanana village, police arrested four men.

Police spokesman, Captain Thulani Zwane, said it had been established that the firearm was licensed and belonged to the father of the alleged poacher who was killed.

“The father was later arrested for allowing a person to possess his firearm without a licence.”

It was not clear whether the men wanted to poach the reserve’s two rhinos, Thabo and Nthombi, or other animals.

Managing director, Francoise Malby-Anthony, said she was shocked at how brazen poachers were becoming.

Last month two suspected poachers were caught in the reserve. Last year Thabo, was shot in the leg in a botched attempt to kill it for its horn. In 2009, the reserve lost a rhino to poaching.

“It’s like a war,” she said.

“We have to reinforce security again and it’s costing an absolute fortune.”

After Thabo was shot, he and Nthombi were placed under 24-hour armed guard.

Gumede said the guards had been instructed never to let the two out of their sight.

The two were hand-reared at the reserve after they were orphaned when they were a few months old.

Last week, the horns of Thabo and Nthombi were infused with poison in a bid to discourage poaching. Thula Thula was the first private game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal to take the drastic step of injecting poison into the horns to protect them from poachers.

The poison is harmless to the animals but is reported to cause illness in humans who consume crushed horn for supposed health and other benefits.

The poison, which is coloured for easy detection, also shows up on X-ray to hamper exportation.

Malby-Anthony, the widow of world-renowned conservationist, author and founder of The Earth Organisation, Lawrence Anthony, is committed to safeguarding them.

“We will do everything we can to protect them, and we are expecting more babies when the sanctuary opens,” she said.

An electric fence surrounds the property and signs warning would-be poachers that the horns of the rhinos at the reserve are toxic are being put up.

According to the Department of Environmental Affairs, 825 rhinos have been killed for their horns in South Africa this year. Of these, 73 were in KZN. Nationally, 272 people have been arrest for rhino poaching and related crimes. Of these, 51 were arrested in KZN.

The five suspects, between the ages of 25 and 40, are due to appear at the Ngwelezane Magistrate’s Court on Friday on charges of attempted murder and possession of an unlicensed firearm.

Daily News