JOHANNESBURG (AP) — A ranger and two other employees of South Africa's parks service were arrested on suspicion of rhino poaching in the country's flagship wildlife reserve, the agency said Monday.
The three suspects were found with a hunting rifle and ammunition in the Lower Sabie area of Kruger National Park, which has been hit hard by rhino poachers, many of whom cross over from neighboring Mozambique, the South African National Parks service said in a statement. The arrests Sunday came after a recently killed rhino was found in the area, the agency said.
"These are the people that we entrusted with the welfare of these animals," said Reynold Thakhuli, a spokesman for the parks service. "These are just elements that unfortunately have allowed themselves to be used by syndicates."
Thakhuli said the alleged corruption was extremely disturbing, but noted the dedication of many rangers and other parks officials. The detentions came after an anti-poaching intelligence operation that included police and park employees, he said.
"It is unfortunate that those trusted with the well-being of these animals are alleged to have become the destroyers of the same heritage that they have a mandate to protect," Abe Sibiya, the agency's acting chief executive officer, said in a statement.
Kruger park lies in the northeast part of South Africa and is nearly 20,000 square kilometres (8,000 square miles), almost the size of small countries such as Israel and El Salvador. Hundreds of rangers patrol the park with some air support and backing from the South African military, but conservationists say more resources are needed to adequately protect Kruger's wildlife.
Home to most of the world's rhinos, South Africa is struggling to stem a surge in rhino poaching in recent years as demand for rhino horn rises in some parts of Asia, including China and Vietnam. Some people view rhino horn as a status symbol and a healing agent, despite a lack of evidence that it can cure. The horn is made of keratin, a protein also found in human fingernails.