Mbombela — Mpumalanga military officials have revealed that some of the rifles used to poach rhino in the Kruger National Park 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 that a .458 rifle recovered following a shoot-out with a group of suspected rhino poachers in the Kruger at the weekend was used as a defence weapon during the war between Frelimo and Renamo.
“These guns were supposed to have been surrendered to the government after the war ended, but some people decided to keep them. 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 would have to be conducted to determine whether the guns confiscated on Saturday 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 the Kruger, which falls under SANParks, 68 suspected poachers were arrested in 2010 alone. This is compared to 29 suspected poachers arrested in 2009.
Rangers were also at risk as they were often “greeted with fire power” without being warned. “Luckily, our rangers have been highly trained to handle such situations,” he added.
Altogether, five suspected poachers were killed near the Crocodile Bridge and Pretoriuskop on 8 January when rangers returned fire in self-defence. Two surviving poachers escaped into Mozambique.
“As much as the death of the poachers is regrettable, it is also an indication of how serious SANParks and the entire conservation fraternity view the looting of the nation’s natural assets,” said Mabunda.
As of 1 April, SANDF soldiers will be deployed to patrol the whole of the 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 actual poachers to couriers and kingpins in rhino poaching circles.