Angry community shuts Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park gate, sets alight guard hut after repeated wildlife escapes
A guard hut was set alight and a park entrance gate shut to the public during a community protest at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi game reserve at the weekend, sparked by the recent escape of several lions and other dangerous wildlife species.
Police were also called in to disperse protesters after a community sit-in protest at the park’s western Cengeni gate near Ulundi on Saturday. The park, established 145 years ago to protect a remnant population of white rhinos, is Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife’s flagship wildlife reserve.
According to Ezemvelo, community members stole cellphones, food and a piece of sophisticated rhino anti-poaching equipment from the nearby ranger accommodation quarters. A guard hut next to the Cengeni entrance gate was set alight and solar panels used to power an electrified fence were vandalised.
The protest was sparked by a series of recent escapes by dangerous animals, including lions, rhino, buffalo and elephant. In one incident last week, a 45 year-old woman was hospitalised after being knocked over by a white rhino outside her home near the park’s western boundary fence.
A pride of five lions was shot and killed by Ezemvelo wildlife officers on 14 August after breaking out for the third time in a matter of weeks and killing several cattle.
Late last week, another two lions broke out and killed four more cattle. One of these predators was shot dead on Friday by wildlife staff, but anger in some communities was already high after two adult white rhinos broke out of the park and were seen close to residential areas.
Some members of the community were reported to have chased and fired several shots at the rhinos in the vicinity of a rural homestead, leading one of the animals to enter 45-year-old Zanele Mbhele’s yard. According to community members, Mbhele was lucky to have escaped death or serious injury after one of the animals charged towards her, ripping off her skirt with its horn.
In other recent incidents, elephants have also broken out of the park, prompting members of the Okhukho and Nqulwane community committee to lodge a complaint with the Public Protector and the board of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.
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In a formal complaint, committee members Msizi Myaka and Similo Khanyile said the repeated escape of wild animals and the poor condition of large sections of fencing around the park posed a serious danger to the lives of surrounding communities, who had also suffered the loss of several livestock from both lions and hyenas.
They said a buffalo was seen outside the reserve recently and four elephants had escaped into the Masokaneni area earlier this month.
In a media statement, Ezemvelo spokesperson Musa Mntambo said the Cengeni gate (one of three main entrances to the park) had been closed due to community protests and would likely remain shut until 15 August.
He confirmed that another two lions escaped last week, apparently via a gully along the park fence. One of the lions was shot on Friday after killing four cows, but the whereabouts of the second lion was unclear.
Mntambo said the protest at the Cengeni gate came as a “surprise”, as Ezemvelo management believed it had reached agreement at a recent community meeting to allow the conservation agency two months to repair sections of damaged fencing.
A resolution had also been passed at the meeting to employ at least 115 local residents to help fix the fence, but so far only 21 had not started work while Ezemvelo finalised a vetting process and waited for pre-employment medical reports.
“Some of the protesters broke into staff accommodation on 13 August and stole various items belonging to the field rangers like cellphones and staff food. They unfortunately stole a Cmore device which is used in the fight against rhino poaching and also burnt the security house next to the gate and damaged solar panels that power the fence.”
Meanwhile, Ezemvelo Acting CEO, Ntsikelelo Dlulane has appealed to community members to refrain from further protest.
“We request people that have issues with Ezemvelo to engage us instead of protesting. I have ensured that most of the resolutions adopted during the community meeting attended by the former Environment MEC Ravi Pillay are implemented.
“The places where we have not started repairing the fence are remote areas that are not easily accessible by vehicles delivering the material. We have put a plan in place to attend to these areas and we appeal to the community to afford us some time. I also hope that those who took items belonging to our field rangers (including the Cmore device) will return them to us.”
On Saturday, Dlulane also visited some of the six community members whose fences were damaged last week by two fleeing rhinos.
“Ezemvelo has begun the process of repairing the damaged fence. Dlulane also met with the family of Zanele Mbhele, the lady injured when a rhino stamped on her, and facilitated that her family visit her in hospital yesterday. Ezemvelo will cover all costs related to this incident,” said Ezemvelo’s media statement.
Nevertheless, community committee member Msizi Myaka said yesterday (14 August) that several residents believed Ezemvelo was not acting swiftly enough to repair the fence or to compensate them for livestock losses.
“We do not want to destroy the park, but we are talking about the safety of human lives. Guards must be placed day and night along weak spots in the fence and helicopters must be on standby to respond immediately if there are more breakouts,” said Myaka.
He blamed the destruction of the guard hut on “someone who was drunk, and set it alight”, denying that protesters were violent.
“We don’t encourage what happened (to the guard hut) on Saturday… Whoever did it must take the blame. At the same time, we worry that our homes are no longer a residential area when we find lions and other members of the Big Five roaming around us.” – DM/OBP