Police were also called to disperse demonstrators following a sit-in protest at the west gate of Chengeni Park near Ulundi on Saturday. Established 145 years ago to protect the remnant white rhino population, the park is KwaZulu-Natal’s premier Ezemwela Wildlife Reserve.
According to Ezemvelo, members of the community stole mobile phones, food and some sophisticated anti-rhino poaching equipment from nearby rangers’ quarters. A security building near Chengeni’s entrance gate was set on fire and solar panels used to power the electrified fence were smashed.
The protest was sparked by a series of recent escapes of endangered animals, including lions, rhinos, buffaloes and elephants. In one incident last week, a 45-year-old woman was hospitalized after being mauled by a white rhino near her home near the park’s western fence.
A pride of five lions was shot by Ezemvelo wildlife officers on August 14 after escaping for the third time in a few weeks and killing several cattle.
At the end of last week, two more lions broke free and killed four more cattle. One of the predators was shot dead by wildlife officials on Friday, but anger was already high in some communities after two adult white rhinos escaped from the park and were spotted near residential areas.
Some members of the community reportedly chased the rhinos and fired several shots at them near a rural homestead, causing one of the animals to enter the yard of 45-year-old Zanele Mbhele. According to community members, Mbhele was lucky to escape death or serious injury after one of the animals pounced on her, ripping off her skirt with its horn.
In other recent incidents, elephants have also escaped from the park, prompting community committee members Ohuho and Nkulwane to file a complaint with the public protector and the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife board.
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In a formal complaint, committee members Msizi Myaka and Simila Khanile said the repeated escapes of wild animals and the poor condition of large areas of fencing around the park pose a serious threat to the lives of the surrounding communities, which have also suffered the loss of several herds of both lions and hyenas.
They said a buffalo was spotted outside the reserve recently, while four elephants escaped to the Masakani area earlier this month.
In a statement to the media, Ezemvelo spokesperson Musa Mntambo said the Chengeni gate (one of the three main entrances to the park) was closed due to community protests and was likely to remain closed until August 15.
He confirmed that two more lions escaped last week, apparently through a ravine along the park’s fence. One of the lions was shot dead on Friday after killing four cows, but the whereabouts of the other lion was unclear.
Mntambo said the protest at the Chengeni gate came as a “surprise” as management believed Ezemvelo had agreed at a recent community meeting to allow the security agency two months to repair parts of the damaged fence.
The meeting also passed a resolution to employ at least 115 locals to help fix the fence, but so far only 21 have started work while Ezemvelo completes its vetting process and awaits medical reports before hiring.
“Some of the protesters barged into staff quarters on August 13 and stole various items belonging to the rangers such as mobile phones and staff food. They unfortunately stole a Cmore device used in the fight against rhino poaching and also burnt down the guard house next to the gate and damaged the solar panels that power the fence.’
Meanwhile, Ezemvelo Acting CEO Ntsikelela Dlulan appealed to members of the community to refrain from further protests.
“We are asking people who have issues with Ezemvelo to involve us and not protest. I have seen that most of the resolutions passed during the community meeting attended by former Environment MEC Ravi Pillay are being implemented.
“The places where we haven’t started repairing the fence are remote areas where it’s hard to get to the transport that delivers the material. We have developed a plan to visit these areas and are asking the public to give us some time. I also hope that those who have taken 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 by two escaping rhinos last week.
“Ezemvelo has started the process of repairing the damaged fence. Dlulane also met the family of Zanele Mbhele, a woman who was injured by a rhino, and facilitated her family’s visit to her in hospital yesterday. Ezemvelo will cover all costs related to this incident,” Ezemvelo said in a statement to the media.
However, community committee member Msizi Myaka said yesterday (August 14) that some residents believe Ezemwela is not acting fast enough to repair the fence or compensate them for the loss of their livestock.
“We do not want to destroy the park, but we are talking about the safety of people’s lives. Guards should be stationed day and night along weak points in the fence, and helicopters should be ready to respond immediately if there are new breaches,” said Myako.
He blamed the destruction of the guard on “someone who was drunk and set it on fire”, denying the violent actions of the protesters.
“We do not encourage what happened (to the security building) on Saturday… Whoever did it must take the blame. At the same time, we worry that our homes are no longer residential areas when we see lions and other members of the Big Five roaming around us.’ – DM/OBP