JOHANNESBURG, July 29 — Unidentified gunmen have killed a South African park ranger and gravely wounded his wife, authorities said Thursday, highlighting the danger to conservationists fighting wildlife poaching in the country.

Anton Mzimba, 42, head ranger at the privately run Timbavati game reserve on the boundaries of the Kruger National Park in northeastern South Africa, was shot dead outside his home on Tuesday, the environmental affairs ministry said.

The game reserve said it had lost a “rhino warrior, a wildlife guardian... and a true legend”.

While police said the motive for the killing was still unknown, UK-based conservation group Helping Rhinos said Mzimba had recently received “death threats”.

South Africa is home to nearly 80 per cent of the world’s rhinoceroses.

But it is also a hotspot for rhino poaching, driven by demand from Asia, where horns are used in traditional medicine for their supposed therapeutic effect.

Police said three armed men approached the park ranger’s home in a residential area near the town of Bushbuckridge in the evening, pretending to ask for water after their vehicle broke down.

They then shot Mzimba several times, before opening fire on his screaming wife.

The pair were taken to hospital, where the ranger died, police said. His wife is fighting for her life.

Mzimba had won several awards for his work spanning two decades, and was featured in a 2022 documentary on efforts to tackle rhino poaching in South Africa.

His death triggered an outpouring of solidarity, including from British royals.

“I’m deeply saddened to learn of the killing of Anton Mzimba who I spoke to in November,” Prince William wrote in a Twitter message.

“Committed and brave, rangers like Anton are central to the conservation of Africa’s fantastic wildlife.”

Prince William called for those responsible to be “swiftly” brought to justice.

Police said they have launched a manhunt for the three suspects.

South Africa’s government said Mzimba’s murder highlighted the daily dangers faced by rangers protecting the country’s wildlife.

Rhino poachers are increasingly moving away from the famous Kruger National Park to private reserves, Environmental Affairs Minister Barbara Creecy said.

More than 450 rhinos were poached across South Africa in 2021, according to government figures. — AFP