The SANParks team, spearheaded by the Tshokwane ranger corps, caught three suspects who could possibly be linked to the recent spate of rhino poaching in the Nwanetsi section of the Kruger National Park (KNP) on March 22, 2008. "It was the best birthday present anyone could have given me," said Tshokwane section ranger, Steven Whitfield, who celebrated his 40th birthday on the same Saturday.
This follows months of planning, preparation, perseverance and commitment to clamp down on rhino poaching in and around the Nwanetsi and Tshokwane sections in the KNP. Since October last year, more than 20 rhinos have been poached in the Greater Kruger area, Mozambique and Mpumalanga. In the Nwanetsi/Mozambique region alone 13 rhinos were killed for their horns with eight of these being in Mozambique and five including a black rhino in the KNP on Nwanetsi section "Tshokwane field rangers worked around the clock, including Sundays and public holidays in expectation of intensified poaching events," says Steven. This also meant extended periods of deployment in identified ‘hot spots' in the section.
On the day, at about 10h30, lance corporal Moses Mkansi reported to Steven that lance corporal Masinga, and field ranger Enock Sibuyi picked up the tracks of three people at Nkelenga waterhole in the Nkuwane stream close to the Mozambican border. They immediately suspected foul play as the tracks indicated the suspects were following a fresh rhino spoor.
Steven set the operation in motion with corporal Ndlovu and field rangers Olsado Mulhovu and Difference Mabunda who joined in the ground search while waiting for aerial support from Skukuza. Steven and SANParks helicopter pilot, Grant Knight, who had been visiting, had rushed to Skukuza from where they picked up Ken Maggs, head of corporate investigation services, who joined them before lift off. While on their way back, the ground crew alerted them that they had heard four shots in the direction of the Molondozi and Harashu streams. It was not long after when Ndlovu and his team found the carcass of a dehorned white rhino at the Harashu and Molondozi origin. They had also heard an axe chopping further north.
On their arrival at the scene, the airborne team located first the one and then another carcass. They directed the ground team towards the second carcass. In turn, the field rangers directed the helicopter in the direction of the spoor leaving the carcass in an easterly direction. In the meantime, field rangers Mabunda and Mulhovu had split off to search downstream along the Harashu in order to possibly pick up the spoor of the suspects fleeing in an easterly direction back to Mozambique. After about 20 minutes, Ndlovu joined the men in the helicopter. "I told Masinga and Sibuyi to keep on the spoor no matter how long it took in the rocky terrain to continue providing direction of the fleeing suspects for the aerial team."
From the air, Steven could also see field rangers Mabunda and Mulhovu approaching some rocky outcrops and gullies in a small tributary that joined the Harashu from the west. While hovering above the area, the air team heard several shots. Field rangers Mabunda and Mulhovu confirmed they had made contact with the suspects. Steven urged Masinga and Sibuyi to join the other two, using the helicopter as a marker. At the same time, the aircrew gained height to scan the area for any fleeing suspects.
Within about two minutes the ground team had joined up. Corporal Ndlovu was dropped off. As corporal Ndlovu's team swept the outcrop and gully in an extended line, the helicopter hovered above to ensure the suspects did not escape and to provide support if needed. When the field rangers and two suspects appeared after a short while, a third suspect broke from the gully towards the south-west. The helicopter hovered above and Ken fired warning shots, resulting in the suspect's surrender. Lance corporal Masinga who had been chasing the third man then managed to catch up to him.
The suspects were arrested after they pointed out the location of the two white rhino cow carcasses and other items on the scene where they had been hiding. Steven and his team recovered two sets of rhino horn, food, cooking gear and loaded firearms. He deployed the field rangers at strategic points on the scene while waiting for Frikkie Rossouw of CIS to assist with the investigation. The three suspects were placed under guard of corporal Ndlovu and lance corporal Masinga and later lance corporal Mkansi who took them to wait at Nkumbe look-out, while Steven and the CIS team completed their investigation of the crime area.
"We also noted that the eyes of both rhinos had been removed. One of the suspects said that this had been done on advice from a sangoma who said the eyes of the rhino would reveal to the KNP rangers who killed the rhino and how," says Steven. The suspects were taken to Skukuza for their court appearance. "We believe that this is truly a despicable act and hope for a speedy trial where we trust that justice will prevail," said KNP's managing executive Dr Bandile Mkhize.
"We are proud of the combined team made up of Tshokwane rangers, SANParks corporate investigation services (CIS) and SANParks air services who all contributed to the successful arrest of these poachers."
Earlier in March, Phalaborwa section ranger Evans Mkansi and his team found another dehorned rhino carcass in his section. "The carcass is about three months old and it is not yet clear what transpired there," says Frikkie. The incident is under investigation.