A herd of elephants are facing slaughter after two of rogue males killed a conservationist who was helping them in South Africa.
Although African elephants are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife – a local governmental organisation – is deciding whether to shoot dead the 31-strong elephant herd.
Beyers Coetzee, 45, had devoted his life to the elephants living on the Mawana Reserve and was on the brink of securing a deal with landowners to quadruple the size of it to 40,000 hectares.
In a tragic turn, while guiding the herd over the Thaker River and into the safety of the reserve, Beyers was trampled and gored to death by two bulls.
Reserve employee Thobani Masondi said: “I was leading and Beyers was close by and had been setting off the crackers and I warned him the elephants were getting angry.
“But he wanted to get them over the river into the safety of the reserve. I did not see the two elephants but I could smell them. Then they came out the bush from 15 metres.
“Everyone was running and I nearly collided with Beyers then I heard a thud as the bulls hit him and they had him. There was nothing that anybody could do to help him.”
Reports state that before his death, Beyers faced an ongoing battle with local authorities, including Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, which is responsible for maintaining wildlife conservation areas in the coastal region of KwaZulu-Natal.
The organisation had consistently questioned Mawana Reserve’s wilderness project over incomplete fencing, the recent death sparking a decision over whether or not to kill the herd entirely.
Company spokesperson Musa Mntambo confirmed Mawana Reserve was investigating the circumstances of the death but had not yet decided the fate of the herd.
He said: “We are in the business of conserving animals and a decision to destroy any animal is taken with a heavy heart and in most cases is done to prevent the further loss of life”.
But sources close to the authority said that a cull of the entire herd was being put forward, with one stating: “The two bulls responsible are certainly likely to be shot dead and the death of this man is being seen as a reason for the entire herd to be culled but it is totally wrong.
“The problem is that the finance to fence the elephants in should be provided by the state but trying to get agreement or the actual finance in place is just a near impossibility.
“Their only hope is that somehow the money is raised to fence in a new reserve. The fact they keep escaping and causing damage has become a nuisance for the authority.”
Following Beyers’ tragic end, a number of fellow conservationists are now urgently trying to raise £800,000 to build 100km of secure fencing and make sure that the herd is safe and free roaming.
That includes Dereck Milburn, close friend of the victim and regional director of animal conservation non-profit The Aspinall Foundation.
“There are calls out there to cull the elephant herd because of Beyers’ death and because they keep straying but trust me that is the very last thing on earth that he would want,” he explained.
“These are not aggressive elephants but they were being pushed hard that day to get out of the community area and the two bulls got frustrated and this was their normal behaviour.
“The relevant authority should not even be looking into culling these elephants and none of them should lose their lives because at the end of the day Beyers gave his to save theirs.
“We need to pull together and make his dream come true to save this herd and create the safe space he was so close to creating in an environment that works for all.”
Grant Fowlds, author of Saving The Last Rhinos, added to the conversation by stating that the elephants had done nothing wrong and were simply protecting their peers from what they thought was a threat.
“This herd has been under threat for three years but is now in huge danger and we need the support of the public to ensure that this project to protect this valuable herd succeeds,” he said.
“If we can get the area fenced we can build game lodges and roads and bring in tourists and the herd will grow and grow along with many other animals and bring huge prosperity.
“It was Beyers’ dream and I loved that man and I want to see it through to the end.”
If you want to help save the herd while ensuring Beyer’s legacy lives on, you can donate to The Aspinall Foundation’s Just Giving page.