Mpumalanga military officials have revealed that some of the rifles used to poach rhino in the Kruger National Park (KNP) date back to the Mozambican civil war.
Spokesperson for the provincial South African National Defence Force's (SANDF) joint tactical head office, Captain Albert Mathonsi, said a .458 rifle recovered following a shoot-out with a group of suspected rhino poachers in Kruger was used as a weapon during the war between Frelimo and Renamo.
"These guns were supposed to have been surrendered to the government after the war ended. Some former soldiers are believed to be selling the weapons to make a quick buck," said Mathonsi.
He said while many poachers were Mozambican, the .303 man-made rifles from Swaziland were also commonly used for rhino poaching in South Africa. "Guns are circulated on a very fast pace as there is huge demand for the weapons," he said. Ballistic tests will be done to determine whether the guns confiscated during another shoot-out were previously used for rhino poaching.
Chief executive for the South African National Parks (SANParks), David Mabunda, described 2010 as the worst year of rhino poaching in South Africa. "South Africa has lost 333 rhinos, with 162 suspected poachers being arrested in relation to the crime last year," he said.
Mabunda said that in Kruger, which falls under SANParks, 68 suspected poachers were arrested in 2010 alone. This is compared to 29 suspected poachers arrested in 2009. Rangers are often "greeted with fire power. Luckily, our rangers have been highly trained to handle such situations," he added.
As of 1 April, SANDF soldiers will be deployed to patrol the whole of Kruger, with assistance from the South African Police Service, who have been scaled down in the park. "The SANDF does not make arrests, but hands over culprits to the SAPS," said Mathonsi. The people arrested in the past year include poachers doing the killing, as well as couriers and kingpins in rhino poaching circles.
According to media reports (news24.com) rangers in the Kruger National Park killed five rhino poachers in two separate incidents in the second week in January 2011. Two people were killed near Pretoriuskop and three in the Crocodile Bridge Section.
In the same week, SANParks (South African National Parks) released stats on the rhino war last year (2010). South Africa lost 333 rhinos - must be close to the highest number on record. Of these, 146 were killed in the Kruger National Park. The North West province lost 57 rhinos, Limpopo province 52 rhinos and KwaZulu-Natal 38 rhinos.
Law enforcement agencies arrested 162 people linked with various activities related to rhino poaching. Last year and six people (all poachers) had been killed in confrontation with rangers and other security agencies. Five of these fatalities happened in the Kruger National Park.
In the first 10 days of 2011, the country had already lost five rhinos to poaching incidents. This is a really bleak picture and very very troubling. So far, no rangers have lost their lives, but how long can this last with the situation escalating as it is?
There is huge money to be made trading rhino horn, and the poachers are not shy to invest in the latest and best equipment - night vision, automatic weapons, helicopters, cross bows - and manpower to cash in.
There is no shortage of commitment, courage and dedication in the rangers' corps. Let's hope our resources can match those of the poachers - in time.