/ 18 May 2001

Kruger man charged over animal sales

FIONA MACLEOD, Johannesburg | Friday

THE head of Kruger National Park’s game capture unit, Douw Grobler, has been suspended and charged with misconduct relating to the sale of disease-free buffalo.

Grobler is a vet who is world-renowned for his expertise in relocating elephants and other large mammals. He is in charge of the park’s Lowveld buffalo breeding project, aimed at countering the serious impact of bovine diseases on wildlife stocks by breeding disease-free buffalos.

For the past three years the project has been removing buffalo calves from their mothers and suckling them on Jersey cows, to prevent the mothers passing on their diseases. The disease-free buffalos were not intended for sale, and the goal was ultimately to supply about 2_000 of them to other national parks around the country.

The project, which South African National Parks (SANParks) ran in conjunction with game farmer Koos Bekker in Phalaborwa, was closed down after Grobler’s suspension late last month. It is alleged the project was selling buffalos without authorisation, and that some were sold without checks to ensure they were disease-free.

The rewards of such sales can be high – disease-free buffalos fetch up to R130_000 a head – but the risks are even higher. Diseases like bovine tuberculosis, foot and mouth and corridor disease spread like wildfire, threatening not only the country’s multibillion-rand game industry, but also domestic livestock and humans.

After KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife unwittingly sold 22 diseased buffalos at its annual game auction in 1998, one game farmer was forced into liquidation and others filed multimillion-rand law suits against the provincial body. The buffalos had corridor disease, a tick-borne illness that is not fatal to buffalo but is deadly when transmitted to cattle.

The diseases that have most affected the Kruger’s buffalos are bovine tuberculosis, which has spread to a number of other endangered species in the park, and foot and mouth. The Kruger falls within a foot and mouth red-line area, which means cloven-hoofed animals like buffalos and antelopes may not be transported outside the park.

Kruger’s communications manager, William Mabasa, said the internal inquiry against Grobler would be finalised on Thursday afternoon.

Asked if it would be public, he replied: Grobler is a staff member within SANParks and it is not policy to publish verdicts of misconduct against our employees.

However, interested parties are entitled to such information either directly from the organisation or from the staff member concerned. The same condition will apply with regard to Dr Grobler’s case.

Mabasa could not say whether the allegations would result in criminal charges.

Grobler has relocated hundreds of Kruger elephants since culling was stopped in the park in 1994. He has a formidable reputation for darting elephants from the air and running a smooth relocation process, and has exported this expertise as far afield as Pakistan.

But as head of the park’s game capture unit he has also taken flak from animal welfare organisations for facilitating the sale of Kruger animals to unscrupulous hunting outfits.

He is one of two wildlife vets serving the whole of the Kruger park, and concerns were expressed this week that the outcome of the hearing may affect SANParks’s plans to move about 100 elephants into Mozambique later this year as part of the Gaza-Kruger-Gonarezhou transfrontier park.