'Rangers framed me for Kruger rhino poaching,' soldier tells court

2016-03-29 23:02
File: A pregnant rhino cow has been brutally killed. (Askari Game Lodge & Spa)

File: A pregnant rhino cow has been brutally killed. (Askari Game Lodge & Spa)

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Nelspruit - A South African National Defence Force (SANDF) soldier accused of poaching rhino in the Kruger National Park in 2001 and 2010 told the Nelspruit Magistrate's Court that rangers framed him after they realised they had shot him.

Leonard Bhuti Mashego, from Pienaar, was arrested alongside his co-accused, Michael Sithole, from Clau Clau village, after a shootout involving rangers in the Bristol area of the Kruger on September 25, 2010.

They have pleaded not guilty to 23 counts, among them killing and dehorning six rhinos, illegal activities in the game reserve, carrying out a restricted activity involving a threatened species, possession of illegal firearms and ammunition and failing to report a stolen firearm.

On Tuesday, the court heard that all six rhinos were shot and dehorned separately, the first case back in 2001, while the others occurred in 2010 on June 10, September 22 and September 25.

Defence for Mashego, Klaas Khoza, told the court that the Kruger rangers framed his client because they feared he would lay a charge of attempted murder against them.

"The rangers implicated the accused because they shot him. They knew they would be charged. They wanted to make it difficult for him to formulate his defence," said Khoza.

The attorney said it was improbable that Mashego could have been shooting at anyone since he was shot in the back.

"And secondly, as a trained soldier, he wouldn't have missed any of them if he really had fired shots at them.

"The rangers also could not confirm it was my client they saw earlier walking behind another man before the shooting," he said.

Serious doubt

Khoza said the state based its case on circumstantial evidence as on the charges of June 10, 2010, and September 22, 2010, no arrests were made.

He said the rangers also contradicted each other during their testimonies, which brought serious doubt to their court versions.

"It could be that someone stole his firearm, went into the park to kill the rhino and brought it back before him realising it had been missing.

"Why also would the state charge him with possession of an unlawful firearm and ammunition, when they knew he had a licence for them?" said the attorney.

Khoza said the accused was only looking for his lost cattle in the Kruger.

He asked the court to find him not guilty on all the charges he faced.

Sithole's defence, David Mabunda, also asked the court to drop all the charges against his client because he was also framed.

"The accused went to the mountain to dig for two plants of muthi because he is a herbalist. Two rangers indicated they had to call him as he was outside the fence in order to arrest him.

"He said the rifle that was photographed lying next to him was planted by the rangers," he said.

Mabunda said the accused did not know Mashego as they lived too far apart.

Beyond doubt

"The first time he saw him was when they first appeared in the White River Magistrate's Court. The state has failed because there are no blood samples or fingerprints linking the accused to the firearm and rhino killing," he said.

Senior state prosecutor Isbet Erwee said the state has proven its case beyond doubt.

"The rifle found on accused one was never planted by the rangers. The cartridges found in all the scenes linked the rifles found in their possessions," she said.

Erwee said on the case in 2001, Mashego said the rifle was stolen and used without his knowledge.

"Why would the rangers wait for years to implicate him in the other scenes of rhino killing in 2010? The strange aspect is that the same firearm and cartridges were found at all the scenes, with him being shot at the scene."

Erwee said the dehorned rhino was found about 500 to 700 metres from them and they had a fresh set of rhino horns in their possession.

She asked the court to drop the charges of unlawful possession of a firearm and ammunition against Mashego because he had a firearm licence.

She asked the court to find both of them guilty of all the other charges they faced.

The case was postponed to April 21 for judgment.

Read more on:    knp  |  sandf  |  mbombela  |  rhino poaching

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