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Written by: Sharon van Wyk 

A hunter recently shot and killed a female elephant whilst trying to hunt a bull elephant at Mabalingwe Nature Reserve near the town of Bela-Bela in Limpopo province. Controversy surrounds both the issuing of the permit to hunt the bull and the killing of the apparently very docile cow. (Africa Geographic attempted to speak to the management at Mabalingwe but was referred to Hannes Wessels who had not answered our calls at the time of release).

elephant killed accidentally
© Mike Kendrick

According to Mabalingwe shareholder Rob Preller, one of the owners, Hannes Wessels, approached Limpopo’s Department of Economic Development, Environment and Tourism (LEDET) for a permit to shoot the bull. The application was declined because Mabalingwe didn’t have an elephant management plan; a legal requirement for reserves with wild elephants.

Dr Yolande Pretorius of the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Wildlife Management was contracted to draw up the plan, and interim recommendations included the use of GnRH and putting the female elephants on a contraceptive programme. A bull elephant, without other competitive bulls around, stays in permanent musth, which is a state of sexual arousal. This makes it aggressive but the issue can be managed by administering a course of vaccines known as GnRH that lower testosterone levels.

“He apparently gave the bull the first round of GnRH, but it seems likely that he didn’t complete the course, and continued to be aggressive as a result,” said Dr Pretorius.

“At this stage, I brokered a deal to buy the bull and translocate it,” says Rob Preller, but added that Wessels refused the deal, preferring to shoot it.

Pretorius says Wessels pressured her to finish the elephant management plan by the end of June. “I became uneasy because I knew he wanted to get a permit to shoot the bull and couldn’t without the management plan,” she says. “After constant pressure from him – and the fact that he had ignored my recommendations to manage the bull properly – I withdrew my services without finishing the management plan.”

Investigations suggest that Wessels may have persuaded LEDET to issue a permit on the grounds that the bull was a ‘damage-causing animal’ (DCA). “If he did, I don’t know how,” says Preller, “because LEDET is supposed to investigate DCA claims before issuing permits, and no such investigation took place. LEDET is also obliged by law to either put down the problem animal themselves or to use a professional hunter, and a nature conservation officer must supervise the shooting. Instead it appears Wessels ‘sold’ the permit to a local hunter.”

That’s when things went awfully wrong. During the hunt, a female elephant allegedly charged the vehicle carrying the hunter and was shot instead. Wessels refused to comment on the incident, claiming it was ‘too controversial’.

The head of the Mabalingwe Common Property Association, Jan Zeederberg, was also unavailable for comment, as was Matie Barnard, manager of Mabalingwe’s agents, Waterberg Property Management. Kgmotoso Theko of LEDET’s Modimolle permit office was not taking calls, and the LEDET communications officer, Mboni Mushiana, has not provided any response.

With the hunting permit still valid, the bull’s future is uncertain; although sources at Mabalingwe suggest it has been postponed.

“We’ve got the solution to this problem in the form of the GnRH,” says Preller. “But it seems that Mabalingwe’s owners are more concerned with making money from its death than giving it a fair chance at life.”


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