Midnight butchery at game reserve

Staff at a state-owned game reserve in Limpopo are allegedly running a lucrative midnight butchery on the reserve and selling off bush meat to surrounding communities.

In papers before the Pretoria High Court, it is alleged that the bush meat booty at the Hans Merensky provincial reserve near Gravelotte includes endangered species such as sable antelope.

Details of the trade are contained in an urgent application granted this week to a Limpopo animal welfare organisation, the SanWild Wildlife Trust, preventing the release of two injured giraffes at the Hans Merensky reserve.

Thomas Chavalala, a SanWild employee who has been helping to look after the giraffes while they are recuperating at the reserve, said in an affidavit before the court he observed “reserve staff arriving during all hours of the night” at a slaughterhouse “with animals that had been shot. These animals were off-loaded, skinned and the meat cut into pieces. The next day the meat was either removed by the staff or collected by visitors.”

Chavalala said he had also seen “white hunters arriving with reserve staff during the day with animals that had been killed in the reserve”.

Chavalala and other SanWild employees became reluctant witnesses of the slaughter at Hans Merensky after they were notified late last month that a giraffe with a snare dangling around her neck and with a tiny calf had been spotted on communal cattle-grazing land near the reserve.

An electrician working in the area said he had reported the sighting to officials at Hans Merensky, but they replied there was nothing they could do about the giraffes. SanWild arranged permits for the capture and removal of the giraffes, and the National Council of SPCAs offered to sponsor the rescue effort.

On July 28, when the team went to move the giraffes, they discovered the animals were desperate for water. “They had worn a deep trench in the ground next to the [cattle] fence. Obviously, the giraffe wanted to find a place in the fence where she and her calf could cross to find water,” said Louise Joubert, SanWild’s founder/trustee, in an affidavit.

The team estimated the giraffes had been without water for between 10 days and two weeks.

They darted the adult giraffe, removed the snare from around her neck and treated her for dehydration. They moved her to the quarantine holding boma at Hans Merensky because this was the closest facility, and went back to get the calf.

When they attempted to dart the calf, which was about two weeks old, it collapsed. “When our team reached her, she was clinically dead. She had no heartbeat, was not breathing and showed no eye reflex,” said Joubert.

The team managed to revive the calf, which “died” again en route to the quarantine facility. Both animals have since been receiving 24-hour treatment.

Joubert planned to move the giraffes to her sanctuary after a three-week quarantine period. But late last week she was informed by officials at the Limpopo environment department that they were taking ownership of the giraffes and that the animals could no longer be moved from Hans Merensky. Staff members at the reserve tried to prevent her team entering the reserve to treat and feed the giraffes.

Joubert told the court releasing them on the reserve was not an option because of “illegal poaching activities. Some of these poaching activities were being run by officials of Limpopo nature conservation who were hunting animals at night between the hours of 11pm and 3am the next morning.”

She had reported the incidents to conservation law enforcement officials and sent them photographic evidence of reserve staff and visitors with dead animals, carcasses in the slaughterhouse, and skins and horns lying in piles outside the butchery.

Repeated attempts by the Mail & Guardian to get officials at Limpopo Tourism and Parks and the environment department to comment on the allegations this week were met with silence.

Joubert planned to return to the high court on Friday for an order enabling her to move the giraffes to SanWild.

The rescue operation had cost at least R60 000 so far, according to her affidavit, and her team has to travel at least 140km every day to care for the animals.

But if the giraffes were released into the reserve, she said, they have no chance of surviving. The adult has an acute infection in her right eye and her unweaned calf will have to be hand-fed on a daily basis until early next year.

Karen Trendler, an internationally renowned wildlife rehabilitation expert who has been advising SanWild, said in an affidavit that releasing them now could be a crime in terms of the Animal Protection Act: “Release and the cessation of veterinary treatment and specialised care at this stage would in all probability lead to the death of both animals.”