Bloody wildlife cull at KZN reserve stopped after 900 animals slaughtered, but elephants still at risk
A trustee, whose husband was killed by an elephant from Mawana Game Reserve, tried to have 3,600 of its wild animals culled ‘to get some cash flow going’. By the time the cull was stopped nearly 900 animals were dead.
This story is a collaboration based on an in-depth investigation by @LionExpose
On Sunday, May 14, a culling team arrived at Mawana Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal with a permit approved by the KwaZulu-Natal wildlife authority Ezemvelo to kill 500 kudu, 100 giraffe, 1,000 impala, 1,000 blue wildebeest, 200 zebra, 400 blesbuck, 100 warthog, 300 nyala and 50 waterbuck.
The permit had been applied for by Una Coetzee, one of four beneficiaries of the Mawana Family Trust. Her husband, Beyers, was trampled to death by one of Mawana’s elephants in 2020. According to the permit, valid until December 2023, the animals listed could be killed during the hours of darkness, with the aid of artificial light from a vehicle.
Other members of the Trust were not consulted. By the time Marilieze Roelofsz, one the beneficiaries, managed to stop the killing, between 800 and 900 animals were dead, including two giraffes and their young calves.
According to Karel van der Walt, who lives on Mawana, it was a war zone. “People who were visiting the farm at the time to see historical sites were horrified. I didn’t know what to do. Young giraffes and zebras were killed. There are foetuses in the bush. Animals here are now traumatised. It was madness.”
Sihle Mkhize of KZN Wildlife said the permit was in order, though it was unusual to cull so many animals at once. It was issued, he said, “given our historical engagement with Mawana Farm and the complex issues that prevail, including frequent escape of elephants to communities adjacent to the farm, ownership issues about the farm, challenges related to the welfare of animals and other issues associated issues thereto”.
He said Ezemvelo it will make a statement about the cull later this week.
Mawana has between 34 and 40 elephants, but they were not on the permit. Una insists she would not have them culled, but says their future is uncertain.
The Manawa elephants have been breaking out of the reserve from around 2016 and have established an annual movement pattern which includes other farms and community land. They could be shot by KZN Wildlife as problem animals as the reserve cannot contain them.
This is a story of family disagreements, intrigue and the dubious raising of funds from foreign donors. In the KZN wildlife scene nothing ever seems to be simple.
The reserve was founded in 2003 by Cornelius Magiel Fourie van der Walt, who stocked the reserve with impressive game and procured elephants from Sabi Sands Game Reserve and Phinda. His aim was for Mawana to become a Big 5 reserve for both tourism and seasonal hunting. Between 2006 and 2016, six big bull elephants were hunted there and another was shot by a neighbour. In January 2017, Cornelius died and the reserve was bequeathed to the Mawana Family Trust. Settlement issues, with Una as executor, have continued for six years, with a further court appearance scheduled for June 7.
Running a reserve is an expensive business and Cornelius, according to Una Coetzee, died with no policies or plans to pay reserve expenses. The cull, says Una, was “to get some cash flow and wind up [her father’s] estate. Some social media has accused me of wanting to cull elephants out of revenge. If I had wanted to do that, I would have done it many years ago. I’m trying to fight for those elephants.”
In 2017 Beyers Coetzee, an architect and Una’s husband, met Grant Fowlds, a conservationist, wildlands developer and author, who had heard about the problems with the elephants. Fowlds involved several friends in an idea to include neighbouring farms along with communities to form a complex conservation project with visions of lodges and conservation corridors. This would provide a safe corridor for the Mawana elephants.
According to Marilieze Roelofsz, Fowlds started using the rich game along with Mawana’s incredibly diverse landscape, its airstrip and game lodge as a base to show potential investors and donors about the idea of a larger biosphere economy. Three of the four Mawana Family Trust’s beneficiaries supported the project.
Owing to Mawana’s elephant problems, the NGO Elephants, Rhino and People (ERP) offered to assist by translocating the elephants to a reserve in Mozambique, but because of the biodiversity reserve plan, the offer was declined. ERP collared two of the elephants to provide satellite tracking and Humane Society International-Africa (HSI/Africa) collared another three. HSI has continued to provide annual contraception for the cows, and new collars when they need replacing.
But the problems with elephants continued. In May 2018, after receiving complaints from various people on the adjoining farm Oudewerf, Ezemvelo served Mawana with a non-compliance order for the keeping of African elephants.
To retain them, the reserve was required to repair its fencing and herd the elephants back to Mawana. If this failed, the Hlonyane, Mkolo Nhlazatshe and Mkholokotho communities and adjacent farms affected by the elephants would have to agree to allow the elephants to roam inside a three-strand electric fence to be erected on the sections that affected those farms affected.
An emergency plan of action, if the elephants got close to these communities, was also stipulated. The only stipulation achieved, however, was monitoring using radio collars.
In February 2020 several of the elephants trashed the maize crops of a local farmer Dlemeveni Sithole, on the farm Vreesniet. An urgent plan to guide them away would go tragically wrong.
Beyers Coetzee, together with three local workers and a neighbour’s son, attempted to herd them back using firecrackers and gunshots. The elephants were in dense bush but seemed some way off. However, one of the team said he could smell elephants and warned Coetzee to stop. The men were suddenly ambushed by two bulls which had stayed behind the herd. The men scattered, but Coetzee was trampled to death.
By 2022 Mawana had still not been able to adhere to some of the requirements of the compliance notice for the elephants, including the fencing and electrical strands around community crops. A collared bull was shot by Ezemvelo when it appeared close to a football field and not far from a local spaza shop.
But Mawana’s problems are not just about elephants – they are seemingly also about bad blood between the Van der Walt siblings. They lost the licence to raise funds through hunting because of the fencing issue and urgently needed money to run Mawana and, particularly, repair the fencing. Grant Fowlds’ project had seemed to be the answer. But despite a steady stream of donors using Mawana’s lodge (seemingly for free) no income was forthcoming for the elephants.
In 2020, however, Fowlds and some investors bought land at Zoekmij on the boundaries of Mawana with money that the Van der Walts felt could have been used to solve Mawana’s fencing problem.
According to the siblings, communities and surrounding farmers were approached by Fowlds to sign into a Thaka Valley Communal Wild Conservancy under the proposed Loziba Wildlife Reserve. Those signing would see their farms or portions of donated land handing control of those portions to a company called CWC Africa Projects, which, according to its website, was founded by Grant Fowlds and James Arnott.
Its website says it “urgently required donor funding in order to fund much-needed planning resources to help sustainably develop our targeted landscapes into Communal Wild Conservancies”. Loziba, CWC Africa and another UK-based website called Rewilding Africa, are all pleading for funding from donors and investors, with Fowlds and Arnott listed as “leadership team”.
These websites contain many images of Mawana and its game without mentioning the reserve, though the Loziba website says it needs funding “as soon as possible … We want to remove the elephants and remaining animals from where they are at risk of poaching, neglect, overcrowding and human encroachment. We particularly want to offer our herd of 40-plus elephants and the highly endangered black rhino a safe haven”.
A source at one of the farms affected, who did not wish to be named, said “it’s been a while since [Fowlds and Arnott] got in touch, but the last time they did we were told it’s gonna happen within a month or so. It still hasn’t happened. They made promises which haven’t been delivered; things aren’t good between us”.
Una Coetzee appears to have the same problem. “Grant Fowlds misled me. My husband was the founder of Loziba. He did all the maps, logos etc. When he died, Fowlds took all the intellectual property from us. There were empty promises made that were not kept by him. It was to become a greater reserve, but I don’t see its future at the moment.
“Lobiza was the solution for me. As executor, I have to carry the risks, land claims, elephants and the problem of cash flow – I don’t have the money to erect fences for the elephants.”
Fowlds said Una’s approach to him was not unexpected but he was disheartened “because Una and I were very close and now I think she hates me. She’ll say that for five years I’ve been exploiting the elephants and making money to buy all the farms around and using their elephants. I’m trying to create a mega-reserve for rhinos with elephants. We employ 120 people – that’s gonna go south now.
“But I understand the problems. Ezemvelo disallowed hunting and now they’ve got a 10,000 hectare farm with the only income coming from research. Una is solely
responsible for getting things done, not the family. Because Mawana couldn’t get a permit to hunt, Una decided to sell meat for revenue.”
Right now Mawana and its bountiful wildlife are in limbo. Unless its elephants are fenced in to keep them out of surrounding community crops and farms, they could be declared problem animals and shot. If not, it’s possible that Una Coetzee could try for another permit. And as far as the Van der Walt siblings, Johannes, Marilieze and Karel are concerned, Fowlds has or is still raising money off their backs, but they’re not seeing help for the elephants.
Where all this leads is hard to predict. But as you read this, there are elephants whose luck may be beginning to run out. DM
To read all about Daily Maverick’s recent The Gathering: Earth Edition, click here.