Policeman and game warden killed in rhino poaching gun battle

A police constable and a ranger were shot dead at the weekend during an operation to track rhino poachers in South Africa's Kruger Park game reserve.

Colonel Vishnu Naidoo, a police spokesman, said it was the first time a police officer had been killed in the course of attempts to clamp down on the poaching of rhinoceros for their horns, which fetch high prices in the Far East.

Col Naidoo said the police officer was on joint patrol with a soldier on Saturday morning near the Tshokwane picnic area in the south-central part of the world-renowned park. "They had just received information that there may be potential poachers in the area. They had taken off from their observation point when they came under fire," he said.

After the officer was hit, the soldier returned fire and fatally wounded the ranger. Col Naidoo refused to speculate whether the man had been operating with the poachers. In recent cases, it has emerged that rhino poachers are often accompanied by game professionals, including rangers with local knowledge and veterinarians equipped with dart guns.

South Africa has stepped up its attempts to control the poaching of rhinoceros horns. Last week, the department of environment said181 rhino had been killed for their horns since January, an increase on the same period last year. In 2011, it reported 448 illegal rhino killings, compared with 333 in 2010 and 122 in 2009.

The Kruger is by far the largest of the country's 19 national parks, and has about a million visitors a year.