Crippled conservation: Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife is ‘a very big ship with a very small rudder’

Crippled conservation: Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife is ‘a very big ship with a very small rudder’
Members of the Ezemvelo Wildlife veterinary team administer tranquiliser drugs to young elephants during a game capture operation. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

There is no end in sight to the instability at the once-renowned nature conservation agency.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Years of instability at KwaZulu-Natal’s once-renowned Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife nature conservation agency seem likely to drag on indefinitely as forensic auditors continue to probe allegations of “maladministration” within the organisation and its management board – while also mulling over plans to merge its operations with the KZN Sharks Board.

Though the entire Ezemvelo board was suspended seven months ago, the provincial government has yet to release any substantive information about the progress and results of a forensic investigation announced last August. Nor has it given any indication on when the investigation is likely to be wrapped up, or whether it is planning to appoint a new board or permanent chief executive to steer the cash-strapped conservation agency back to some stability.

With an annual budget of more than R1-billion, Ezemvelo is responsible for the conservation of more than 80 game reserves and nature reserves – including two World Heritage sites and the flagship Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, where a remnant population of southern white rhinos was multiplied to restock Kruger National Park and other reserves in the last century. In more recent decades, Ezemvelo has been embroiled in a series of scandals involving political appointments, repeated forensic audits, funding cutbacks and leadership vacuums.

For the past four years, the organisation has been largely rudderless, following the resignation of its last permanent CEO in 2017 and an earlier forensic investigation that revealed a failure by the previous board and executive to contain rocketing staff costs, which currently consume more than 80% of its conservation management budget.

Hippos await prospective buyers at an Ezemvelo game auction. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

Since then, the agency has limped along under a succession of three acting CEOs followed by the appointment of a temporary administrator late last year when the management oversight board was suspended.

To complicate matters further, the provincial government is now planning to merge Ezemvelo with the KZN Sharks Board, a lengthy legal and administrative process that is expected to delay the appointment of a new board and executive structure for the merged entity for several months – if not years – according to Heinz de Boer, the Democratic Alliance spokesperson for environmental affairs in KZN.

Responding to written queries from DM168, a spokesperson for the provincial department of environmental affairs has given conflicting information on whether the proposed merger with the KZN Sharks Board might derail the appointment of a new board at Ezemvelo.

Eleven board members are on suspension, drawing retainer fees that total nearly R700,000 for the past seven months.

Asked for information on progress made since August to probe the alleged irregularities, department spokesperson Bheki Mbanjwa said: “At this stage the investigation is in its infancy and no findings have been made as yet regarding the allegations against the board and board members. As a result, all allegations remain unsubstantiated, and mere allegations.

“It is currently not known when the investigation will be concluded, as the process is managed by the Forensic Unit in the Officer of the Premier,” said Mbanjwa.

How will the department deal with compensation or damages claims by suspended board members if they are not implicated in irregularities?

“In the event that any board members are found to be innocent, the necessary steps will be taken to inform the relevant board member and the public of the fact that such board member has been exonerated.”

He confirmed that, despite not attending any meetings since August, all 11 suspended board members were being paid monthly retainer fees: R27,138 for the chairperson, R14,173 for the deputy and R6,056 for ordinary board members. It is unclear whether non-executive board committee members are also getting retainer fees.

The tenure of the majority of suspended board members is due to expire in June, creating further uncertainty about whether a new board will be appointed if the investigation is not finalised by that date.

Impalas on alert in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

Mbanjwa said: “The appointment of a new board is entirely dependent on the completion of the legislative process to incorporate the functions of the KZN Sharks Board into Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. Once the new legislation is passed, a new board will be elected in accordance with the provisions of the new legislation, which will repeal the KZN Nature Conservation Management Act of 1997, the KZN Sharks Board Act of 2008, as well as the remaining old-order legislation, including the Nature Conservation Ordinance of 1974.”

But according to De Boer (who is also a member of the provincial portfolio committee on environmental affairs), by the time the forensic probe is completed, the tenure of suspended board members will almost certainly have expired.

“The investigation may well implicate some of the board members, but they should not all be tarred with the same brush. We welcome the investigation, but it came suddenly and we did not even know this until it was announced by the former environmental affairs MEC [Nomusa Dube-Ncube].

“As a member of the portfolio committee, I still don’t know exactly what the board members have been accused of, so the suddenness and secrecy behind their suspension last year is a matter of serious concern. One would have expected that elected members of the provincial government would have been informed in confidence about the reasons, and the progress of the forensic investigation.

“We are also concerned about the potential politics at play, given past experiences where board appointments seem to have become a convenient place to deploy ANC cadres,” De Boer said. He believed the appointment of a new Ezemvelo board was likely to be delayed until the conservation agency was merged with the Sharks Board.

“So what we are left with – for who knows how much longer – is an acting CEO and an acting administrator acting as a one-man board. They are trying to steer a new course for a very big ship with a very small rudder,” De Boer suggested.

Responding to queries on this issue, Mbanjwa appeared to backtrack on his statement that the appointment of a new Ezemvelo board was “entirely dependent” on the Sharks Board/Ezemvelo merger process. “The appointment of the [Ezemvelo] board is to some extent dependent on the passing of the new legislation to give effect to the incorporation [with the Sharks Board] and the progress with the enactment of the new legislation will inform the process of appointing a new board – although it must be noted that the process of drafting new legislation is far advanced and that the consultation process will commence in the near future.”

The Wildlife and Environment Society of SA (Wessa) has expressed its “gravest concerns for Ezemvelo as an entity and the dedicated staff and officers of Ezemvelo who, no doubt, are becoming more and more disheartened by the day”.

A spokesperson for Wessa KZN said: “It was not so long ago that Ezemvelo was held up as a shining example of protected area management, but it would appear that those days are long gone.

An elephant bull in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

“If this particular area of governance was not so fraught with politics (modern and customary), we would suggest that this is a situation crying out for some sort of a public-private partnership model and, whilst we would be willing to assist with anything like that, we anticipate that the current governance structures are unlikely to be receptive to any suggestion like this.”

Former board member Iain Ewing, who resigned nearly four months before his fellow members were suspended, had previously complained that he and some of the other board members were being kept in the dark about “grave and very concerning issues”.

Ewing said there appeared to be a deliberate effort to ensure that some of these issues were not discussed at board meetings and he also raised concern about the continued exodus of highly trained, skilled and passionate staff, which further undermined morale.

Last year, the Sunday Tribune newspaper reported that Ezemvelo hired six bodyguards for acting chief executive Ntsikelelo Dlulane at a cost of R226,000 a month after he received “serious threats” for allegedly cancelling a R22-million Ezemvelo construction contract.

Ewing, who chairs the Ian Player Magqubu Ntombela Foundation and the Wilderness Leadership School, said in his resignation letter that he was leaving with a heavy heart.

“However, it has become impossible for me to add value to Ezemvelo. As a Board member on the HR & Remunerations Committee and the Biodiversity & Conservation Sub-Committee, I have still not been privy to matters of significant importance that should be considered and decided on in these sub-committees and then, in turn, reported to the Board.

“Even at major Board level, we are not getting the necessary clarity on a number of very concerning issues and in some instances, I have gained the impression that there is a deliberate intent for this information not to be discussed at Board meetings.

“I further believe that there is an intentional disconnect in the critical information that flows between senior management and Ezemvelo at Board level and our stakeholders,” he wrote in his letter. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Charles Parr says:

    After all the efforts put in by great people like Ian Player, Nick Steele and numerous other people that cared greatly about wildlife and the environment and along comes the ANC and everything is a complete mess in just a few years. Is there anything else that they can break or steal?

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