By Kamcilla Pillay
Durban - A showdown between police and alleged poachers ended with one of the armed suspects shot in the leg and hand.
Police said members of the Durban Organised Crime Unit, Nyathi Anti Poaching Unit and Special Task Force were patrolling in the Hluhluwe area when they received information at about 4.30pm on Monday about a group of suspected poachers at Phinda private game reserve.
Provincial police spokesman, Major Thulani Zwane, said: “(They) started to intensify their patrols and spotted (the) suspects entering the reserve. When the officers approached, it is alleged the suspects fired shots towards the crime units and the officers retaliated.
One suspect was wounded and taken to hospital under police guard.”
The man who was shot suffered serious wounds to his fingers. He was found in possession of a .308 hunting rifle with five live rounds and an axe, police said.
Three suspects, including the wounded man, were arrested. One is still at large.
Phinda’s conservation manager, Simon Naylor, said the incident had taken place on the reserve’s boundary.
“We received information and went to investigate. We found that two men had been dropped off at the boundary. One man was carrying a gun with a scope and silencer.”
He said they had had three similar incidents this year, while other reserves in the area had been targeted more frequently.
“Of course it comes at great cost,” he said.
Naylor explained that, with their own money and funding from the government, NGOs and other organisations, the reserve paid out between R3 and R4 million for security for its rhino population.
“Some reserves have been struck five, six, seven times. It’s happening all over. There are many syndicates operating in the area and they attack private and state reserves,” he said.
Naylor said they historically saw a spike in poaching at this time of year and had heard many theories why this was the case.
“Some believe it’s done ahead of the festive season and Christmas because people need more money at this time of year.
“Crime in general spikes at this time of year but, of course, this is just speculation.”
But the reserve’s anti-poaching investment seems to be paying off.
“It puts us under huge pressure, but despite the many incursions, we have not lost any rhino this year. We are limiting our losses,” Naylor said.
He said many poachers managed to gain access but left without much success.
“We did have two losses last year and one the previous year,” he added.
“We do still fall victim to low levels of poaching from people looking for meat or for the muti trade. Normally warthog and nyala are targeted.”
National Prosecuting Authority spokeswoman, Natasha Kara, said all three suspects were expected to appear in the Hluhluwe Magistrate’s Court today on charges of illegal hunting of rhinos and possession of an unlicensed firearm and ammunition.
Provincial police commissioner, Lieutenant-General Mmamonnye Ngobeni, applauded the police for the arrests.
“Police will work tirelessly to fight and combat illegal hunting, including rhino poaching,” she said.
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife chief executive, Dr Bandile Mkhize, also lauded the units for the arrests.
He said: “The arrests indicate what can be achieved when all law enforcement institutions join hands in this war. The arrests further confirm our observation that, due to improved security measures in our game reserves, poachers are now targeting the private game reserves.”
Earlier this week, the Daily News reported that 77 rhinos had been poached in KZN this year, with the discovery of three carcasses in Zululand last week adding to the toll.