By Simon Bloch of The Cape Times/Independent News Group.
An unarmed Zululand game farm manager, Bester Scheepers, and a group of rhino guards armed only with knob-kerries overpowered and arrested two members of a heavily-armed poaching gang after a fist-fight that lasted five minutes prior to Christmas.
The suspects were due to appear in court yesterday (THUR).
The farm Scheepers manages, (the name of the reserve has been omitted for security reasons) has been targeted before by rhino poachers, with two rhinos being killed at his farm only a week earlier.
Carrying knob-kerries, batons and 2-way radios, the team’s operation turned out to be a life-and death struggle to protect their employer’s rhinos, which have been targeted for their horns by criminal underworld syndicates which countrywide have seen over 1500 rhinos killed in South Africa in the past four years.
“We had been on high alert for a few days” he recalled, “but when my senior guard called to tell me that he had discovered the tracks of five intruders, I was ready to go” said Bester.
He found the tracks around 7 am next to the perimeter fence of our property and had been following them for four hours, heading in the direction of our rhinos.
“I raced to meet the guards with my tracker dogs, and we continued to follow the tracks on foot. We then split into two groups, and the dogs led me to an area near the water-wallow where the rhino like to roll in the mud”.
It was there, under a clump of blue-gum trees that Bester spotted his quarry; five men resting in an area camouflaged by dense foliage.
“Being unarmed, my instincts told me to take them by surprise. Luckily I have some military skills, so when I saw the rifle and huge axe on the ground, I knew I had to disarm them. That was the only thing that went through my mind… I tackled the one nearest to the weapon before he could lift it to aim. He was trying to bite me, the dogs were barking, and my colleague Skabuz was wrestling one of the others who was trying to stab him with a large screwdriver. It was a hectic fight, but we worked them” he continued.
According to Bester, the encounter lasted five minutes before he and his guards got the upper hand, overpowering the exhausted suspects and securing their wrists behind their backs with belts and boot-laces.
“We recovered a high caliber Winchester 458 hunting rifle fitted with a silencer, 4 cartridges, an axe, high-tech night hunting lights and cell-phones. I dread to think what might have happened had we not tracked them down” he said.
Three accomplices managed to escape, but left their shoes behind.
The police were then called, and the suspects handed over to Lt Colonel Mthembu from the Richards Bay Hawks.
A tracker from an anti-poaching unit who visited the scene, said one of the suspects’ shoe soles resembled a footprint that had been spotted at another poaching incident at a nearby game reserve.
Scheepers, who is the toast of Hluluwe’s rhino conservation community and a hero to members of the Hluluwe Rugby Club, said that the operation was ”all part of the job”.
Bester, 24, grew up dreaming of a career in agriculture and game- farming.
“Bester Scheepers is fearless, and I can vouch for that” says Hluluwe resident and game-guide AdamPark. “I watch him play rugby at the Hluluwe rugby club, and he’s like a rhino. He just puts his head down and gets stuck into his opponents. He is not afraid to tackle the biggest guys on the field. Plus he just love his rhinos, and is dedicated to saving them” said Park.
Senzo Myamirie, 30, a Mozambican national and Mthokozi Mlambo, 19, a South African, were due to appear in the Hluluwe court today where they are will be charged with possession of an unlicensed firearm, illegal hunting and trespassing.