Meshack Radebe

KwaZulu-Natal - The provincial government has been ordered to appoint a completely new board to run the affairs of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, averting another costly court battle and a legal ruling which would have plunged nature conservation in KZN into a “state of chaos”.

In an order taken by consent in the Pietermaritzburg High Court yesterday, Judge Piet Koen declared that the current KZN Nature Conservation Board was invalid. But he ordered that this ruling be suspended on condition that provincial Environment MEC Meshack Radebe appointed a new “lawful” board within six months.

The ruling followed a court battle by the Animal Interest Alliance which started in 2006 over new Ezemvelo policy proposals to regulate the keeping of animals in captivity.

The alliance discovered that Ezemvelo did not have a full complement of members, as required by law.

Alliance spokesman Jim Stockley said that if the declaration of illegality had come into force immediately, it would have rendered recent activities of both the Ezemvelo board and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife illegal.

Without the suspension of the order, it is understood that any recent Ezemvelo decisions related to the award of tenders, contracts, wildlife and hunting permits, senior staff appointments and a range of other conservation issues could have been open to legal challenge or cancellation.

The alliance, represented by environmental attorney Jeremy Ridl, was set up to “promote the welfare of animals, to strengthen the human-animal bond... and to safeguard the rights and interests of responsible animal owners and professionals”.

Its members include commercial animal, bird and reptile breeders, zookeepers, animal trainers and film-makers.

In court papers, the alliance argued that nature conservation laws required that the board be made up of at least nine members representing a range of different interest groups, including at least two members representing organisations which promoted the advancement of nature conservation or environmental protection.

Other board members were required to be appointed on the basis of their knowledge of the business sector, labour matters and heritage resources.

However, it appeared that, from 2003, the Ezemvelo board had operated without its full complement. Since 2008, there had been only five members, and from 2009 only four.

The alliance argued that, with the exception of a former conservation director of the Wildlife and Environment Society, none of the board members had a “demonstrated interest in nature conservation”, as required by law.

Yesterday Stockley said: “We are very pleased to bring the court matter to an end. It was never our wish to create a state of chaos in the province.

“Our concern was, and remains, that without a properly constituted board that is representative of all relevant stakeholders... there is no accountability for the actions of officials in Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.

“Our concern was not with the legal technicalities... It was that, without a fully fledged and competent board, there was no proper oversight of the activities of Ezemvelo officials, and no corporate governance in the province’s nature conservation agency.”

In recent times, both the Ezemvelo board and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife had been plagued by financial and other woes, and in September 2008, the MEC of the time suspended the entire board and the organisation operated under the MEC’s administration.

Forensic audits had also uncovered serious financial and other maladministration.

“It is our view that, had a proper board been in place, it would not have sanctioned the unlawful processes that Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife embarked upon, and which forced us to take the matter to court,” he said.

- The Mercury