An award-winning Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife game ranger has been killed by his colleagues when an anti-poaching operation ended up in a shootout between two groups of rangers.

Described by officials as the most tragic incident in the 115-year history of conservation, the shooting occurred on Saturday at Umfolozi Game Reserve in Zululand where Zephaniah Myeni, 39, and three other rangers were tracking suspected rhino poachers.

Though details of the shooting were still sketchy, wildlife officials yesterday said Myeni’s death was a result of bad communication between the rangers.

Spokesman Maureen Zimu said field rangers from Madlozi camp picked up two human tracks heading towards the wilderness area on Saturday afternoon, and a team of four field rangers from the Anti-Poaching Unit, led by Myeni, was dispatched.

“The suspected rhino poachers fired three shots at about 6.30pm trying to kill a rhino and the observing lance corporal confirmed seeing two men in green clothing and directed the ground team to the site. To reach the site as soon as possible and help cover the larger area, the four-man team divided themselves into two groups,” Zimu said.

“The two-man teams subsequently intercepted each other. On hearing nearby human activity, the leading group (led by a staff sergeant) took cover, waiting to see whether the sounds were poachers or their own team that had separated from them.”

The group led by the staff sergeant waited in darkness and tried to positively identify Myeni’s group as the second group of rangers, but then the shooting started.

“He [the staff sergeant] shouted that they were Ezemvelo field rangers, but the shooting continued.

“Convinced that they were being attacked, the groups continued shooting at each other and Myeni was killed.”

Once the gun battle ended, the game rangers realised Myeni had not identified himself and that they had shot him when they returned fire.

Wildlife officials have launched an internal investigation and police may open an inquest docket.

Zimu said the aim of the internal investigation, which was led by a police officer who worked with the wildlife officials, was to establish why there was poor communication.

KwaZulu-Natal police spokesman Colonel Jay Naicker confirmed the shooting, but could not say whether the surviving rangers would face criminal charges.

Zimu said Myeni was had been part of the Ezemvelo family for 18 years and was a “highly respected and influential front man on combating poaching on the ground”.

“He was one of the dedicated and committed field rangers and had achieved numerous accolades, including the Golden Lions Head for the recovery of a loaded gun, and also a few bravery awards.”

“Myeni took part in numerous combined police and Ezemvelo security operations.

“These came about as a direct result of the unit in intelligence gathering, which led to the arrest of two rhino poaching suspects,” she said.