Yesterday we published an interview with Simon Naylor, reserve manager at Phinda private game reserve in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, revealing the full impact of poaching on the reserve’s rhinos, finances and staff. Today we publish his report of a recent poaching incident. The report has been edited to remove location and identity information for security reasons.
14 November 2015
A gunshot was reported to the Phinda ops manager at around 1800 on the evening of the 14 November by field rangers. The fence patrol was sent to check the fences along the boundary. The special ops team proceeded to the area. It was unclear if the shots heard were outside the reserve and also the field rangers thought they were possibly thunder as there was a big storm that evening. Teams checked a number of roads and fences until it got dark and late into the night and finding nothing returned to their stations. Field rangers remained to observe for any activity.
15 November 2015
The crime scene was located by one of the field rangers while on a game drive with guests at around 06h30. The carcass of the rhino, rifles and axe were seen and reported. First thoughts were that the game drive had just disrupted the poachers and they had recently fled the scene.
Field rangers were sent to secure the nearby fence line. Others were sent to secure the scene and locate and follow up on any tracks or signs to pursue the poachers. A helicopter was called for and arrived around 7am to follow up from the air. It was then established that the possible gunshots from the previous evening were the cause and that the poachers must have fled the previous evening. SAPS (South African Police) Rhino Task team was notified as was *** and *** to carry out the post-mortem. Phinda field rangers were sent back to track the rhino and footprints to piece together the scene and also to establish where they entered the park. A team was also sent to follow the poachers’ spoor to see where they exited the park.
Tracks of four poachers were picked up not far from the carcass. It became clear that they were disturbed by the reaction the previous evening and ran and hid in a nearby drainage line and did not return to the scene. A tracking team was then deployed to follow those tracks. A short while later *** and the two Phinda tracking dogs joined the follow up. It became clear the poachers had got lost in the dark and perhaps avoided heading east to the fence due to the presence of the fence patrols. Their tracks headed west into the park.
The rhino was left in a hurry. The horns were half chopped off. An axe was left lying close to the carcass. Two rifles were left propped up on a bush nearby. A 308 cal rifle & a .375 silenced rifle. The 308 turned out to have been stolen in Johannesburg in June 2015. The .375 had one live round in the chamber.
It appears the rhino was still alive when they tried to chop the horns off. Blood pools and splatter close to the axe showed where they first tried to cut the horns. It must have then rolled or moved to the position where we found it. A single .375 bullet was recovered from the carcass. The bullet entry point was on the right shoulder. Finger prints were found on the axe and both weapons and will be processed by the SAPS Rhino Task team.
A hot pursuit then ensued to try locate the poachers. Their tracks took the tracking team west into Phinda. The helicopter was recalled to assist in the follow up. The tracks crossed numerous roads and eventually exited Phinda on the boundary with *** farm. It appears as the sun rose on the morning of November 15 they got their bearings and started to head back east towards the R22 road. They crossed the Mzinene River on *** land and ended in the gum trees just east of ***. We lost light and the spoor in that area. We called off the search at about 20h00. We did find clothes and shoes of one of the poachers in the gum trees close to *** house. With a 14 hour head start we almost found them…