Suspected poacher shot in Isimangaliso Wetland Park was small-scale fisherman
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DURBAN – Three organisations have banded together to set the record straight on the shooting of a suspected poacher in the Isimangaliso Wetland Park almost two weeks ago.
The Nibela small scale fishing (SSF) Co-operative, Coastal Justice Network and Masifundise Development Trust compiled a joint statement following the shooting of a small-scale fisherman, believed to be a poacher.
Thomas Nkuna of the Nibela SSF Co-operative, Jackie Sunde of Coastal Justice Network and Lindani Ngubane of Masifundise Development Trust said the shooting and disappearance of Thulani Mdluli, 24, raised concerns regarding a shoot-to-kill pattern after Thulani’s elder brother Celimpilo Mdluli, 30, was shot and killed in the same manner in September 2020.
The statement said Thulani and his three friends, all local fishermen from the traditional fishing community of Nibela went fishing in the upper reaches of St Lucia on November 12, 2021.
The Nibela community had lived on the Nibela peninsula for several hundred years, depending on fish from the lake for their food security.
“However, on this day, Thulani appeared to have paid for this practice with his life. His three friends say that they were fishing when they heard shots fired. They fled into the bush in different directions and ran home,” the statement read.
The statement said it appeared rangers had been in the area investigating an unrelated poaching incident that happened earlier in the week.
“Thulani, however, never returned home. When the family went to the scene of the shooting all they could find was his plastic flip flops in the mud. When they then went to the police station in Mtubatuba to report that he was missing they were informed by the police station commander that rangers working in Isimangaliso had phoned in a report of a shooting, but they claimed that they did not investigate whether the person was wounded fatally, nor retrieve the body,” the statement read.
On November 16, Isimangaliso Wetland Park issued a statement that said field rangers reported that they had fired shots at people they assumed were poachers when one of the men – the statement calls him, without evidence, a poacher – at the water’s edge allegedly shot at the rangers. They then stated: “They observed blood in the water which made them suspect that one poacher (sic) had been shot.” They further stated that “he might have attempted to avoid arrest by jumping in the water”.
“It appears that they did not try and find the wounded fisherman or the gun he allegedly used to fire at them. The three fishers that accompanied Mr Mdluli, have strongly denied that he was armed or fired shots and no gun has been found,” the statement read.
The rangers confiscated the two boats and the search for Thulani’s body continues.
Nkuna said the community was in shock and feared for their lives.
Thulani had a three-month-old baby and his partner and family were waiting anxiously for news.
Thulani’s brother, Mpilozi Mdluli said Thulani was a fisherman and they relied on him to bring fish home for food.
Last year, September 2020, Celimpilo, Thulani and two friends were shot at by rangers while fishing. Celimpilo died on the scene. The other fisherman who was shot recovered from his wounds however this incident left the community fearing for their lives.
The community met with the conservation authority last week and gave them 72 hours to find Thulani’s body or come and explain the rangers’ actions. They have had no response.
Over the weekend, the police said after five days of searching, they had not been able to locate the body, believed to be Thulani.
The three organisations said the shootings followed years of harassment by rangers from Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the agency contracted to undertake law enforcement in the World Heritage Site. The community has repeatedly informed the authorities and requested meetings with the fisheries branch, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and Isimangaliso Wetland Park to address their concerns, as they were declared a small-scale fishing community and their fishing rights recognised by Minister Creecy in March 2020.
The statement added that following the killing of Celimpilo last year, they requested the Legal Resources Centre to write to the Minister requesting a transparent investigation into this killing and that the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) meet with the conservation authorities. To date, the report into the investigation pertaining to Celimphilo’s death commissioned by the Minister has not been made available to the family or the community. The investigation into his death by the police has suffered several inexplicable delays and the police have claimed that evidence is missing. The community are extremely concerned that like Celimpilo, there may be little justice for Thulani.
Nkuna said: “We fear this pattern of shooting resulting in death and the tendency by the rangers to ignore the rights allocated to the fishers by the DFFE Fisheries Branch and to instead view all the fishers as ‘poachers’. Over 500 households depend on the lake for their basic food security and very few have other livelihood options.”
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