Prince Harry is at the front line of a bloody war against rhino poachers, joining heavily armed forces battling gangs of criminals wielding rifles and machetes.
The Prince was last week flown secretly into a military camp deep in the vast South African game reserve of Kruger Park, where he has been going on night patrols with an army unit as part of the government’s anti-poaching campaign, called Operation Corona.
The South African force consists of several hundred infantry, 400 armed rangers and 150 others, including special forces and police – and they have already killed more than 300 poachers.
Last Wednesday, after the Prince had joined the unit, forces confronted three poachers along the Crocodile River.
In a shootout, one poacher was injured and the rangers recovered a high-powered rifle and silencer.
The Gazelle helicopter carries five men armed with automatic weapons, and sources said Prince Harry would be able to use his experience with Apache helicopters to act as a co-pilot or even take the controls.
Rangers on night patrols use tracker dogs to hunt the poachers, and let off green smoke to alert pilots to a safe landing spot so they can deploy attack teams.
Up to 40 poachers wielding high-powered rifles, axes and grenades cross from neighbouring Mozambique into the park every night, favouring the full moon, known as the ‘killing moon’.
Retired Major-General Johan Jooste, Harry’s boss during what will be the most gruelling period of his three-month trip working for African conservation, said: ‘This is a declaration of war against South Africa by armed foreign criminals. We are taking the war to these armed bandits and we aim to win it.’
He said: ‘Harry will be with me for quite some time. We’ll try to keep him safe.’
Despite the unit’s efforts, rhino deaths in Kruger have more than doubled over the past few years due to the lucrative market for their horns, which fetch up to £20,000 a pound in the Far East, where they are falsely believed to have medicinal properties.
Conservation experts say 558 rhinos have been killed in Kruger so far this year, with an estimated 900 incursions by poachers.
Criminal syndicates funded by Chinese mafia gangs use poor, unemployed locals around Kruger Park to hunt the animals.
Harry, who is travelling under the auspices of the Zoological Society of London and the Tusk Trust, has already spent six weeks in Namibia where the government is carrying out a drastic dehorning programme to deter poachers.
South African conservationist Peter Chadwick said: ‘This is counter-insurgency, an actual war that they are fighting.
‘I know of Prince Harry’s involvement with the anti-poaching unit in Kruger and I know the situation there is no fun and games. You don’t get a chance to sit down and reason with these guys over a cup of tea.
‘It’s all about rapid response and that’s where the helicopters come in. I wouldn’t be surprised if Harry was doing some piloting.’
A Kensington Palace spokesman declined to comment but the palace has previously said: ‘Prince Harry will spend time working with experts at the sharp end of wildlife protection. He will join a team of rangers who are the first to respond to reports of poaching attacks on elephant and rhino.
‘Wherever possible, Prince Harry will be fully embedded with the conservationists and frontline staff he will be working alongside, including living in the same accommodation.’