What do a king, wild dogs and 35 lions have in common?
Tribal council steps in to resolve feud between conservationists and park over endangered animals
A Zululand king has intervened in a bitter fight between conservationists and state wildlife institution KZN Ezemvelo to find a home for a pack of endangered wild dogs.
The wild dogs of Tembe Elephant Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal have been living in exile in a boma for the past year after causing havoc on the fringes of the park by digging escape tunnels and hunting farmers’ livestock.
But their home in the boma had made the park less of a tourist attraction, directly affecting the livelihoods of the Tembe community.
This was when inkosi Mabhudu Tembe, monarch of the Tembe clan, stepped in to see if the matter could not be resolved by a tribal council.
“We benefit through tourism and [the dogs] bring indigenous knowledge to our communities. They become our heritage. We cannot separate ourselves from them,” Tembe told Times Select.
In a deal brokered between all the parties involved, some of the wild dogs will now move back into the park in a carefully managed process.
The reserve on the SA-Mozambique border reintroduced the species in 2011 after an absence of nearly 100 years.
Wild dogs are the most endangered carnivores in the southern hemisphere and conservationists say there are only about 120 in KZN. This made them a huge selling point for tourists who flocked to the reserve to see them.
The dogs lived in Temba until 2015 when they started to interfere with the local community on the border of the 30,000ha reserve.
The king said: “There are challenges because they [the dogs] have been misbehaving but we made the proper consultations and the community and the park were able to come together for a solution.”
Ezemvelo spokesperson Musa Mntambo said the dogs were digging under the fence to get access to livestock on the other side.
Cole du Plessis, Endangered Wildlife Trust’s KZN regional carnivore coordinator, said this behaviour may have been caused by the large lion population.
Mntambo said there were 35 lions in the park, while it could really only accommodate 25 lions – and that included cubs.
Wild dogs need to feed every day and their kills were sometimes stolen by lions.
The Tembe dogs moved to the border of the park to look for food and the livestock on the other side of the fence proved to be too much of a temptation for them. The dogs increasingly began escaping the fence to hunt.
This became too expensive for Ezemvelo, which had to compensate farmers and residents for loss of livestock.
Ezemvelo then decided to remove the dogs from the park, but Tembe Safari Lodge, which is situated in the Tembe Elephant Reserve, brought an urgent court application to block the dogs’ removal.
Times Select reported earlier this year that Tembe Safari Lodge co-director Ernest Robbertse offered to pay for the recapture and resettlement of the dogs in a boma while the parties fought over the removal of the animals.
In October 2016 the pack of 14 was placed in a boma and they have been there ever since.
The lodge was told that an executive decision was made by Ezemvelo to remove wild dogs from Tembe as the reserve was considered “too small” to support them, and because there had been repeated dog escapes leading to the death of livestock in surrounding local communities.
Mntambo said the community had demanded the dogs’ removal and said they were very angry.
As the largest tourism employer in the park, Tembe Safari Lodge insisted it should have been consulted about the decision to remove the dogs, arguing that a big attraction of visiting Tembe was the possibility of sighting these rare animals.
The legal back and forth prompted the involvement of the inkosi Tembe who represents the interests of the people who border the Tembe reserve.
The monarch recognised the importance of the dogs in terms of the tourism they brought in and he presided over a tribal court earlier this year.
The tribal court was held between Tembe Safari Park, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, Ezemvelo and the Tembe community.
The outcome was a combined effort to keep the animals at the park. The monarch undertook to manage compensation for any livestock which may be compromised in the future. The safari park undertook to fund further compensation.
Ezemvelo undertook to release the dogs from the boma and ensure that fences were constantly checked to ensure dogs were unable to burrow underneath them and get free. The wildlife trust also offered to supply collars for the dogs to be tracked. The lion population has also been decreased.
“We acted as the mediators,” Du Plessis said. “This is the first time where everyone has come together really to help the species … but if we can make it work at Temba then it paves the way for other parks over 20,000ha to keep wild dogs. Then we may actually save the species.”
The king said: “The credit belongs to the community; they want the dogs here because they understand the importance the animal brings in terms of tourism, the environment and our heritage. As leader I speak for them when I say we accept the introduction of dogs.”