Rhino suspects held in Zululand

A crack anti-poaching unit has nabbed two men suspected of being part of an African rhino-poaching syndicate.

The two Nigerians were allegedly caught red-handed inside a private Zululand rhino reserve at the weekend with a loaded .303 hunting rifle equipped with a silencer and telescope, 10 rounds of ammunition and an axe.

The suspects, aged 34 and 39, appeared in the Ubombo Magistrate’s Court yesterday and were charged with possession of an unlicensed firearm and ammunition, illegal hunting and trespassing, police spokesman, Colonel Vincent Mdunge, said.

They were remanded in custody pending a bail application.

The weapons and the suspects’ Opel Corsa bakkie were handed in at the Mkuze police station for safekeeping as evidence.

The suspects were arrested by members of the private Nyathi anti-poaching unit (APU) in a combined operation with the SAPS’s Durban organised crime unit on Saturday.

Nyathi protects the 23 000 hectare Zululand Rhino Reserve near Mkuze.

Barend Lottering, who heads the unit, told the Daily News he was attending meetings at Kruger National Park when he received a call on Friday that forced him to return early.

Lottering said intelligence-gathering networks had been monitoring the syndicate’s movements and activities around the clock for the past five weeks.

“I rushed back from Kruger overnight to direct the operation. Although our usual foreign national suspects are normally Mozambicans, this particular cell appears to be controlled by Nigerians and citizens from other African nations,” he said.

“Fortunately we had solid (intelligence) that the group had targeted the reserve for Saturday, so we deployed our forces, consisting of Nyathi APU personnel as well as the reserve’s management team, to set an ambush.

“The gunman and his axe-carrying accomplice were dropped off outside the fence line, but they were caught off-guard inside the reserve when they suddenly realised they were in an ambush and out-gunned,” Lottering said.

“The axe man dropped his weapon and managed to escape into thick bush, but our guys managed to run down the trigger-man who we arrested and handcuffed.”

Nyathi also arrested the getaway driver, a Nigerian, who they had tailed to a district road where he had been parked, waiting for the poachers’ signal to return.

Dave Robertson, the former head conservation manager at Mkhuze Game Reserve who now works as general manager at Zululand Rhino Reserve, called the operation a “great success”.

“Fortunately we have not lost a rhino to date. Nyathi’s counter-poaching initiatives have saved a lot of rhinos’ lives in the province this year, and their interventions are always impressive,” he said.

A total of 556 rhinos have been killed for their horns in South Africa this year, nearing last year’s total of 668.

In KwaZulu-Natal 55 have been poached so far this year, compared to 68 for the whole of last year.

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