'We just want answers', says the family of man who went missing at iSimangaliso Wetland Park
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DURBAN - THE family of a northern KwaZulu-Natal man who went missing after he and three friends had an encounter with rangers at the iSimangaliso Wetland Park almost two weeks ago, are demanding answers.
According to his family, Thulani Mdluli, 24, went missing after he and his friends went to fish in the park on November 12. It is understood that the men did not have permits to fish.
The wetland park authority alleged that the field rangers encountered the group, whom they described as suspected poachers. It further alleged that one of those in the group had shot at them. The authority said the rangers returned fire, and one of the suspects was believed to have been injured as they found blood in the water.
Mdluli’s relative, Siqondi Mdluli, who is secretary for the local Mdluli chieftaincy, said yesterday that tensions were mounting in the area. She said Mdluli’s family were mourning, but they had no body and no closure.
She added that the community had warned the chief that if the authorities did not act swiftly, they would take matters into their own hands.
“We just want answers on what happened. No one goes fishing with a gun, you use a fishing rod. If the authorities can just find (Thulani’s) body, maybe that would appease the community and calm tensions.”
In a statement released last week, iSimangaliso said that on November 12, field rangers at Mfabeni Game Reserve reported hearing a gunshot being fired on the eastern shores of Lake St Lucia at iSimangaliso Wetland Park, and called for back-up.
The authority said the rangers then spotted two boats on the lake.
“As they were patrolling at a distance, four poachers were observed walking towards the two boats. It was further noted that one poacher was carrying a gun.
“As the four poachers were about to push the boats back to the river, from a safe distance, one field ranger cautioned the poachers to surrender,” the statement said.
The authority alleged that one of the group started shooting towards the rangers, and the rangers returned fire.
“The suspected poachers ran in different directions during the shoot-out. Field rangers further observed blood in the water, which made them suspect that one poacher had been shot. He might have attempted to avert arrest by jumping into the water.”
Heinz de Boer, the DA KZN spokesperson on Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs, said the shooting incident and suspected poaching as alleged by iSimangaliso again highlighted the ongoing conflict between local communities and protected area management.
“If indeed this was merely a case of fishing, then the SAPS must launch an urgent investigation into the entire saga. If shots were fired at rangers, forensic evidence would have been easily obtained.
“The DA has learnt that the chairperson of the KZN Conservation and Environmental Affairs Portfolio Committee, Honourable SW Mshengu, is in meetings with the local community to unravel what transpired. We welcome this intervention and look forward to a detailed response to the committee.
“Given the seriousness of the incident (alleged poaching and attempted murder), a high level SAPS team must be involved in sifting through the allegations and counter-allegations.”
Thomas Nkuna, the chairperson of the Small-Scale Fishery Co-operative, said Mdluli and his friends were probably fishing in the area, which was a common area for the community to fish, when they heard gunshots.
He said that according to witness accounts by the three people who were with Mdluli, he was unarmed.
He said Mdluli had a 3-month-old child, and a partner. “His family just want his body, and want the police to update them on whether they are still looking for him or not.”
SAPS spokesperson Captain Nqobile Gwala confirmed that a case of attempted murder had been opened.
Gwala said the complainants alleged that they were performing their duties at a game reserve in Mtubatuba when they spotted people who were in the reserve illegally.
“The men spotted the rangers approaching them and they allegedly opened fire towards the game rangers, who retaliated. One of the men fled the scene, while the second jumped into the water and disappeared.
“Police officers from the Search and Rescue Unit were called to the scene, unfortunately they couldn’t locate the 24-year-old man. A missing person docket was opened at Mtubatuba police station. The police are still searching for the missing man.”