After Samuel Maluleke’s 11 cattle were stolen in one swoop he followed the spoor along a narrow path into the hills towards where the village of Matiyani meets the Kruger National Park.
At the park’s boundary he noticed where the fence had been cut with pliers and then mended back together. He suspects this was to allow the cattle to be herded into the park. The grass on the other side of the park shows signs of being trampled by a herd. The tracks of a person wearing takkies also lead into the park at the same spot.
Maluleke, a retired labourer who relies on the sale of his cattle to pay for school fees and general upkeep of his household, has lost all hope of recovering the herd.
The village lies on the western border of the Kruger National Park near the Punda Maria gate in north-eastern Limpopo. The village’s relationship with the park, which is home to Africa’s big five, is one of varying contrasts.
In early November residents reported seeing three elephants that had wandered into the village fields after crashing through the fence.
One of the giants was eventually put down by rangers from the Limpopo department of economic development, environment and tourism.
Some of the meat from the animal was distributed to community members. A day after the shooting, scores of residents still camped outside the Punda Maria gate hoping to get more of the meat.
The Kruger, which is managed by the South African National Parks (SANParks) remains one of the major employers among communities living along its boundary. Most of the villages like Matiyani are poor with extraordinarily little economic activity and job opportunities but remain vulnerable in the ongoing international phenomenon of human-wildlife conflict.
In the 2019-20 annual SAN Parks annual report, chairperson Joanne Yawitch said that they are conscious that some of our challenges, such as wildlife crime, are rooted in societal issues and particularly in rural poverty.
She further said the organisation has the responsibility to engender an increased feeling of ownership and accountability among the communities that neighbour its parks.
In the same report Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Barbara Creecy said “wildlife crime decreased significantly in the Kruger National Park in the 2019-20 financial year. Rhino poaching declined year-on-year by 21.61% and elephant poaching by 43.75%.”
Aaron Chauke, a leader of local cattle farmers said bands of organised criminals have declared war on the village. Chauke and other farmers say the thieves are stealing cattle and driving them into the Kruger National Park where they are then either taken to Mozambique or slaughtered and their meat resold in South Africa. Some of the meat allegedly ends up sold on the black market in Gauteng among other areas where a 25-litre bucket of meat costs R250.
The park shares an international border with Mozambique in the east and Zimbabwe in the north. The fences between the three countries were taken down as part of the formation of the Limpopo Transfrontier Park. The sections bordering the two countries are also patrolled by the SA National Defence Force.
Matiyani is only about 80km from Mozambique.
Chauke said in one month, October, local farmers reported the theft of more than 30 cattle. Another local farmer, Joel Mathebula, who also lost a cow to theft during the same period, said they are afraid of patrolling the area at night as they suspect the thieves are heavily armed.
The community also blames police for failing to come up with crime prevention strategies to counter the thieves. A parliamentary report noted that stock theft is still one of the biggest challenges for livestock farmers. The report further noted that stock theft is a much more serious threat in regions that are bordering others, which includes some areas of the Eastern Cape, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo.
Saselamani police station commander Lieutenant Colonel Hlekulani Maluleke told a recent media gathering organised by the SAN =Parks at Punda Maria, that the issue of undocumented immigrants walking through the park remains a challenge.
She said, however, the police do not have the vehicles required to pursue some of the suspected criminals involved in crimes such as poaching deeper into the park due to its rugged terrain.
Maluleke also blamed community members for failing to provide police with relevant information required to assist in investigation of crime and arrest of suspects. Community members suspect the cattle thieves are part of organised criminal syndicates that deal in bush meat poached from inside the park.
Sections of the fence along Matiyani are marked with tree branches at strategic points, allegedly the work of poachers identifying their routes. Human tracks lead into the park in areas where the fence has been tampered with.
In the hills above the village, pieces of animal skin from zebra to buffalo are left to rot in sections where poachers are believed to gather under the cover of darkness, to cut up carcasses for distribution to sellers who travel in 4×4 vehicles and bicycles.
Farmers like Maluleke now fear that with the festive season just around the corner, their kraals could be wiped out by the poachers who they say target their cattle for slaughter to supplement their bush meat trade.
Dalton Mabasa, a section ranger in an area of the Kruger covering 57 000 hectares bordering seven villages including Matiyani, said in just three months rangers removed more than 590 snares.
He said that about 10% of the animals caught end up in the pot while the rest is left to rot.
As part of its solution to tackling havoc causing animals and those that break out of the park into residential areas, SANParks has set up community forums to engage residents.
Noel Sithole, who leads the Hlanganani Community Forum, said some youth from surrounding communities have turned poaching in the park into a career.
“They even go into the Kruger during the day,” he said, adding that the poachers target antelope such as impala and kudu.
Sithole and his team of 16 field rangers patrol the area daily, often in temperatures that can soar above 40°C.
However, Maluleke and fellow cattle farmers remain worried and uncertain. On a late afternoon together with three neighbours who are also farmers, they ascend the hills to collect their cattle grazing along the park’s fence.
They stop at different spots to point out where the fence had been tampered with and where human footsteps lead into the park. Maluleke, his face laden with worry, rests against the fence and looks into the distance, perhaps hoping to spot his stolen herd.
“Maybe they should put electricity on this fence. That might help to stop these thieves.”