Our Burning Planet


Woman hurt after rhino escapes from Hluhluwe-iMfolozi in ongoing dilapidated-fencing fiasco

Woman hurt after rhino escapes from Hluhluwe-iMfolozi in ongoing dilapidated-fencing fiasco
A wildlife official next to one of the immobilised white rhinos that escaped from the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park this week. (Photo: Supplied)

A 45-year-old woman, injured in the aftermath of a rhino escape from the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, is the latest casualty of the wildlife fencing fiasco which threatens to further sour relations between local communities and conservation officials in one of Africa’s oldest game reserves.

Zanele Mbhele, from a rural village bordering Ezemvelo KZN Wlldlife’s flagship game reserve, was injured early on Wednesday and taken to the Life Empangeni Garden Clinic private hospital after two white rhinos escaped from the Mbuzane area of the park a day earlier.

The latest incident has heightened wider concerns around human safety, dilapidated fencing, a recent outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the reserve – and the possibly deliberate destruction of sections of fencing infrastructure due to poverty and a shortage of jobs in the area.

The exact circumstances and extent of Mbhele’s injuries remained unclear on Wednesday night. Initial reports from community sources suggested that a young boy, or a young girl, had been trampled by one of the two runaway white rhinos. 

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife spokesperson Musa Mntambo later confirmed that two rhinos had been seen outside the reserve and that Mbhele (45) had been taken to hospital. However, the wildlife agency was still trying to confirm exactly what happened. He said Ezemelo had been notified that Mbhele’s injuries did not include any broken bones and it was unclear whether she had been physically trampled by the animal, or had fallen over and hurt herself while fleeing from its presence near her home.


Nevertheless, the latest dangerous-animal escape from the park has further inflamed tensions between Ezemvelo and several community members – who have appealed to the Public Protector, provincial government and the board of Ezemvelo to intervene as a matter of urgency to resolve the community’s safety fears.

Msizi Mnyaka and Similo Khanyile from the Nqulwane and Okhukho community committee, said they were deeply concerned about the series of repeated, recent wildlife escapes from the park, which endangered human lives.

Quite apart from these growing risks of people being killed or injured by wildlife leaving the park (and the subsequent shooting of escaped animals and threats to wildlife staff), there is growing concern about the economic and social impacts for the park and the broader region due to the potential transmission of foot-and-mouth disease between cattle and wildlife.

Last week, a buffalo was reported to have escaped from the park.

Last month, five runaway lions were shot and killed by Ezemvelo after their third foray out the park.

Community members pose next to a rhino that was immobilised on 10 August 2022 and then returned to the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. (Photo: Supplied)

There have also been several other recent reports of elephants and other dangerous animals leaving the park, apparently due to the critical state of large sections of fencing around the 96,000 hectare game sanctuary in northern KZN.

While independent sources have disputed claims that the entire Hluhluwe-iMfolozi fence is on the point of collapse, Our Burning Planet has obtained an official Ezemvelo report which suggests that the overall condition of the 162km fence is “very poor”.

The July 5 report to the KZN Parliament’s portfolio committee on environmental affairs suggests that there are two options:

  1. An R8-million upgrade to a 113km section of the park fence.
  2. A R40-million upgrade to the entire 162km of fencing, which would include river crossings, cabling and gates.

But, as of early July, Ezemvelo had just 20 rolls of Bonnox fencing, 12 rolls of stranding wire and zero fence poles in stock for this park.

A further red flag was the confirmation of foot-and-mouth disease in at least one buffalo in the park in April, followed by further confirmed buffalo cases in May. The national Department of Veterinary Services had also issued a declaration of intention to issue the park with a quarantine notice in terms of the Animal Diseases Act.

While dangerous-animal escapes are a perpetual risk for public and private game reserves globally, the Ezemvelo report underlines the concerns and growing tensions around human/wildlife conflict due to shortage of government funds or failures in management or oversight in some reserves.

In a recent official complaint sent to the Office of the Public Protector, seven representatives of the Okhukho and Nqulwane communities adjoining the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park said they lived in perpetual fear of being attacked by lions and other wildlife.

“This week alone, we have recorded more than five consecutive cases of livestock eaten by a pride of lions that escaped from the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. A few months ago, it was elephants that were roaming in the community vicinity. 

“We categorise this incident as a disaster and seek Public Protector urgent intervention as this occurrence is contravening human rights. Ezemvelo is failing to prevent lions from escaping from the park and this is a dereliction of duty which is disrupting the normal conditions of existence

and causing a level of suffering that exceeds the capacity of adjustment of the affected communities,” the representatives said. 

Ezemvelo was due to issue an official statement on Wednesday night on the latest escape of two white rhinos, but this was not received. – DM/OBP

Absa OBP

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