Former soldier in full uniform when caught poaching, court hears

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Johannesburg - A former South African National Defence Force soldier facing 23 counts relating to illegal hunting was in full uniform and armed with a 303 rifle when rangers shot him while he was poaching in the Kruger National Park five years ago, a court in Mpumalanga has heard.

The former soldier, Leonard Buti Mashego, appeared alongside his co-accused, Michael Sithole, in the Nelspruit Regional Court on Thursday afternoon.

The two accused were arrested after a shoot-out involving rangers in the Bristol area of the Kruger on September 25, 2010.

The two face 23 counts, among them killing and dehorning six rhinos, illegal activities in the game reserve, carrying a restricted activity involving a threatened species, possession of illegal firearms and ammunition and failing to report a stolen firearm.

The court heard all the six rhinos were shot and dehorned separately, on June 10, 2010, September 22, 2010, and September 25, 2010.

"I was off duty and left home in Pienaar on the afternoon in September 24, 2010, to go look for my lost cattle at Siphelanyane. After I asked some shepherds in the veld, they said they last saw them headed towards the Kruger fence, and I decided to go look for them there," Mashego told the court.

Mashego said he carried his licensed 303 hunting rifle, live ammunition and his ID book.

"At dawn, while I was still searching, I was shot at by people I did not see. A bullet hit me on my left shoulder and exited in front and I fell down and fainted. I only woke up a short while later to find myself surrounded by many rangers," he said.

He said he first discovered when he appeared in the White River periodical court that he was shot after being accused of killing and dehorning rhinos in the Kruger.

Sithole, who claimed he was a herbalist, testified that he was digging for muthi used for cleaning the stomach when the rangers arrested him on September 25, 2010.

"It was around 04:45. I just had started digging for muthi at about 800 metres from the Kruger fence. The rangers, who were standing outside the fence on a railway line whistled and called me. When I went to them, they told me to lie down and arrested me," he said.

He said a rifle was then planted next to him by the rangers and photos of him were then taken.

"I do not know my co-accused. I live in Clau Clau and it is far away from Pienaar where he lives. I only saw him during our first appearance in court," said Sithole.

State prosecutor Isbet Erwee told Sithole that a ranger testified he was arrested at the same place as his co-accused, Mashego. A photo of him lying down with a rifle next to him was shown to him in court.

"The photographer also testified he took the photos of you and that the rifle was right next to where you lay. Even your co-accused was in full uniform when he was shot close to where you claimed you were digging for muthi," Erwee said.

Erwee said both firearms found on the two accused were linked to the hunting incidents on June 10, September 22 and September 25, 2010.

"Two freshly cut horns and knives were found during your arrests. Knives were used to dehorn the rhinos and the method used was similar in all the incidents, which an expert described was a special kind of art.

"The two firearms found in your possessions were linked to the shootings in all the scenes and many used rounds were found," said Erwee.

Magistrate Andre Geldenhuys postponed the case to February 5 for the trial to continue.

Both Mashego and Sithole are out on bail.

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