Johannesburg – Three KwaZulu-Natal Parks Board game rangers who were arrested on Christmas Day for shooting an alleged poacher were granted bail in the Ubombo Magistrate’s Court on Saturday.

The rangers, part of the crack anti-rhino poaching unit (APU) were a foot patrol in Far Northern KwaZulu-Natal’s Mkhuze Game Reserve when they saw three suspected poachers. When the rangers tried to stop the men they fled and the rangers gave chase. A short while later the rangers spotted one of the poachers and when the suspect brandished a knife they shot him.

South Africa has by far the largest population of rhinos in the world and plays a vital role in rhino conservation. A huge amount of time and effort has been expended in the provincial game parks of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) to bring the rhino back from the brink of extinction. Unfotunately the good work has been undermined as rhino poaching is now reaching epidemic proportions with tens of millions of dollars involved in the trade.

There is a growing demand for rhino horn mainly from China and Vietnam where they believe the horns have huge medicinal value in the treatment of cancer and other ailments. Rhino horn is said to be worth more on Asia’s streets than gold, cocaine or heroin. Poachers are armed with high-calibre weapons, getaway vehicles and often helicopters. They are backed by vast, well-funded and organized international criminal networks that are suspected of working with South African officials to move the horns out of the country.

This year alone a record 1020 rhinos have been poached in South Africa and 344 suspected rhino poachers have been arrested.

After the shootout in Mkhuze, the rangers called the police to investigate a case of alleged poaching, but when police arrived they arrested the rangers. Acting chief executive of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Dr David Mabunda has expressed anger that the rangers were arrested. “The poachers are getting away with murder while law enforcement agencies are at war with each other. It doesn’t make sense and I’m furious.” he said in a statement on Friday. He added that the rangers had killed the suspected poacher when they believed their lives were in danger.

Mabunda has vowed to spare no resources in providing legal support to the rangers and also emotional support by referring them for counseling. He also plans to meet with the National Police Commissioner who has previously pledged support for anti poaching drives to set up a protocol to handle these matters.