/ 10 September 2010

Top parks official accused of poaching

An official report has accused the chief operating officer of the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency and the principal officer of the agency’s provident fund of rhino poaching in the province.

Agency chief executive Charles Ndabeni implicated the top officials in a report submitted to the department of Jabu Mahlangu, provincial economic development minister, after a two-week wildcat strike at the agency.

The report points a finger at chief operating officer Edward Thwala and provident fund official Bheki Malaza, saying: “It is alleged that Mr Thwala and Mr Malaza are part of the syndicate … responsible for the poaching in our parks/reserves.”

Ndabeni also claims that he and two other employees, project specialist Dries Pienaar, who also represents the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), and the general manager of wildlife protection services, Jan Muller, were targets of a planned robbery of the agency’s ivory and rhino-horn stockpile.

The agency recently removed its cache of rhino horn and ivory to a more secure location after receiving a tip-off that a syndicate was planning to steal it. This was confirmed by Mpumalanga police spokesperson Captain Leonard Hlathi.

The Mail & Guardian reported recently that at least 10 rhinos had died in the agency’s Songimvelo reserve in the past year as a result of poaching or drowning.

On Thursday, Ndabeni refused to comment about the report or the removal of the horns and ivory and would also not comment on rhino poaching in Songimvelo.

“Due to the sensitivity of these issues, we are not in a position to comment on the matter. It is sub judice and subject to litigation,” he said.

Asked if this meant that the case was before court, when the sub judice rule would apply, he said he would not comment further.

Hlathi declined to comment about whether the police were acting on the allegations raised in the report. “I won’t comment on any report now,” he said.

Thwala, who said he had seen the report, said that the accusations against him were untrue.

“I have already informed the [agency] that I am taking legal action against them for character assassination. We want Ndabeni to submit to my legal team any report or investigation that has found me to be part of a syndicate that is poaching,” he said.

Thwala is among five managers who were suspended from the agency on July 23 on charges of supporting a strike by workers demanding Ndabeni’s dismissal for alleged mismanagement and corruption.

Malaza denied involvement in poaching syndicates.

A spokesperson for the economic development department, Mohau Ramodibe, confirmed that Mahlangu had received the report.

“The MEC received the report in July, but returned it to the agency’s board to investigate the allegations raised by Ndabeni.” said Ramodibe.

Meanwhile, 190 rhinos, including six endangered black rhinos, were reportedly poached across South Africa up to the end of August this year, compared with a total of 120 last year.

Susie Watts, the spokesperson for British-based environmental NGO Co-Habitat, said the onslaught was deeply disturbing but not surprising, because the main market for rhino horns — East Asia — was enjoying an economic upswing.

“Each wave of economic advancement in East Asia has resulted in a concerted attack on Africa’s wildlife,” she said in an interview. —