Two poachers – killed by field rangers in a conservation area in KwaZulu-Natal shortly after the arrest of another three – are believed to be part of a much larger syndicate.
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife spokesperson Musa Mntambo said in a statement on Sunday that the incident in which poachers were killed took place at the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park’s Nqolothi section at around 3.30am.
“Being a full moon, the rangers were on high alert as incursions often increase during (this time).
“The rangers patrolling the section heard some human voices nearby.
“They waited until they saw about five poachers, with one carrying a .303 hunting rifle,” Mntambo said.
The rangers, he said, then switched on their torches and instructed the poachers to stop and lower their firearms.
“One poacher pointed a gun towards the field rangers but the quick-thinking rangers fired first and two poachers were fatally wounded. The rifle was recovered.”
The other three poachers escaped.
A source at Ezemvelo said the group of poachers had first been spotted entering the park around 8.30pm on Saturday and were monitored by rangers.
The source added that poachers had become very violent and would stop at nothing to get their hands on animal horns,” the source said.
“The rangers have to do what they can to protect themselves. For the poachers, this is easy money.”
Mntambo said: “The K9 unit with the assistance of sniffer dogs are following the tracks of those who escaped.”
They were still at large, he said.
Mntambo said the three other suspected poachers – believed to be part of the same syndicate as the men who were killed – were arrested on Saturday in a joint operation with the police and Ezemvelo.
Police spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Katlego Mogale said in a statement that the team, acting on a tip-off, had spotted a white Toyota double cab in the Mgwanwini area.
“The police stopped and searched it and they found a high-calibre hunting rifle, a silencer, ammunition and an axe.
“The 44-year-old driver and his two passengers, 24 and 28, were arrested.”
All three suspects, said Mogale, would appear in the Hluhluwe Magistrate’s Court today on charges of unlawful possession of a firearm and ammunition.
The acting chief executive of Ezemvelo, Sthabiso Chiliza said the work of rangers and police was a “huge achievement”.
“I take my hat off to all those who were involved. We will not relax until we arrest those who escaped as well as their handlers.”
The arrests happened after six rhinos were killed and de-horned in the park’s Mbuzane area the previous weekend.
Mntambo said on Sunday142 rhinos had been poached in the province since the beginning of the year.
Worldwide Fund for Nature chief executive Dr Morne du Plessis told The Mercury that the incident was indicative of the increasing desperation of poachers to get at the rhinos.
“As the value of rhino horn increases, so too does their desperation. I think poachers are becoming more and more willing to resort to violence and even kill those who get in their way.”
Rhino horns, according to various reports, have been sold by poachers on the black market for as much $65 000/kg (R870 000/kg).
The proclivity for violence had been steadily increasing over the past two to three years, Du Plessis said.
He said there was also an increase in poaching in KwaZulu-Natal, which could be as a result of increased security measures in the Kruger National Park.
“There has been a displacement of poachers – who have access to sophisticated equipment through the syndicates – into the province. It is very worrying.”
South African Citizens against Rhino Poaching spokesperson Kim da Ribeira said poachers were resorting to “any means necessary, and there is a concern that they will become even more violent”.