SANParks officials and law enforcement authorities have "remained mum" on speculation that a 48-year-old suspected rhino poacher shot and killed by park rangers at the weekend was a former Kruger National Park (KNP) ranger "gone rogue".According to SAPS spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Moatshe Ngoepe, the man was allegedly shot and killed on Sunday during a fire-fight with rangers in the Maritenga Block in the northern section of the park, near Punda Maria.
"Initially, after spotting a group of suspected rhino poachers moving through park, rangers confronted the suspects, whereby they were targeted and shot at. The rangers retaliated and a deceased suspect was found mortally wounded.
"Three remaining suspects escaped into the surrounding bushes", Ngoepe said.
Two rifles and ammunition, and bags full of axes, machetes and knives were recovered.
Pressed for further details and confirmation that the deceased was a former game ranger, Ngoepe declined to comment further, citing "ongoing investigations" and referred News24 inquiries to KNP officials.
Meanwhile, police in Saselamani outside Giyani, Limpopo, are reported to have launched a search for the three suspects who escaped.
It is believed the group may be linked to the same Giyani-based "Mercedes Benz" poaching syndicate that killed a rhino on a private reserve near the North West border with Botswana, a week ago.
SANParks, the umbrella conservation authority in charge of the KNP, confirmed Sunday's incident, however the body's media specialist, Isaac Phaahla, would not be drawn into speculation the deceased had been identified as a former park employee.
In reply to a written inquiry, Phaahla wrote: "We can't confirm allegations regardless of how strong they are.
"When an incident of this nature occurs, SANParks secures the crime scene and hands over to the SAPS for further investigations. The SAPS should be able to reveal who the person is once they have verified their identity and gone through their internal process. We hope for your understanding," he said.
Asked to verify if tracking dogs or the latest Meerkat Surveillance System had been employed to assist the rangers in confronting the suspects, Phaahla said: "This was a routine anti-poaching patrol.
"Our rangers were fired upon by a group of suspected poachers, and unfortunately, one of them was fatally wounded when rangers returned fire. We have eyes all over the KNP, and potential poachers should think twice about venturing into the park for illegal activities."
Sources with first-hand knowledge of smuggling routes point to trans-national rhino horn and ivory syndicates that have been shipping hunting rifles to cross-border and domestic poaching kingpins via Maputo.
Increasingly, evidence continues to surface of underpaid law enforcement officers and park rangers that have been corrupted by gang bosses and middle-men with offers of financial gain.
In March, five suspected poachers were arrested at the Paul Kruger Gate when they attempted to enter the KNP. The suspects include an SAPS member.
A group of six suspects was also taken into custody at the Phalaborwa gate. The suspects, including a SANParks Environmental Monitor based at Letaba, were found in possession of a firearm, ammunition and poaching equipment, and were apparently on their way into the park when they were apprehended.