Nearly 500 Mozambican poachers killed in S.Africa's Kruger since 2010 -former leader

MAPUTO, Sept 21 (Reuters) - Armed rangers in South Africa’s Kruger Park have killed nearly 500 mostly young Mozambicans for poaching activities over the past five years, according to former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano.

Kruger, South Africa’s main tourist draw, is on the front lines of a surge in rhino poaching for the animal’s horn to meet demand in countries such as Vietnam, where it is a coveted ingredient in traditional medicine.

Poaching gangs are usually heavily armed and rangers in Kruger, which shares a porous, 350-km (210-mile)-long border with impoverished Mozambique, are allowed to open fire if threatened with lethal force.

Officials from the South African National Parks referred queries on Chissano’s comments made on Friday to police, who could not confirm the number of the poachers killed by Monday.

A spokesman at Kruger said data was not available on the number of poaching-related arrests made in the past year. The national parks agency says a majority of suspected poachers arrested are Mozambicans but given no figures.

Chissano, whose foundation is involved in conservation, said 82 Mozambican poachers had been killed in Kruger Park so far this year, compared with 106 during the whole of 2014 without citing the source for the figures.

“It worries me that quite a large number of Mozambicans killed in Kruger Park in poaching activities,” the former president said. “Each of these Mozambicans dead means more poverty for his family, because they can no longer count on him to fight for better living conditions.”

Mozambique is one of the world’s poorest countries, which drives some Mozambicans to try lucrative poaching in Kruger, but South African villages near the park have also been involved in illegal poaching.

In June last year, Mozambique approved a new law introducing tougher penalties against convicted poachers, including heavy fines and prison sentences of up to 12 years. (Reporting by Manuel Mucari; Editing by James Macharia and Mark Heinrich)