Dispute erupts over privately owned elephant in Mpumalanga

Questions have been raised about the public's safety around an elephant used for human interaction, as well as the owner's purported illegal possession of the elephant due to permit discrepancies.

Controversy has erupted after a woman was recently in the news for raising money toward the rehabilitation and safety programme of her privately owned elephant in the Hectorspruit area near Komatipoort.

Two entities, the Elizabeth Margaret Steyn (EMS) Foundation and the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Authority (MTPA), find themselves embroiled in a heated dispute with Sonell Joubert, the alleged owner of Tswale.

Tswale stays with Joubert and her fiancé on the farm Lowhills Safari. The crux of the matter revolves around Joubert’s purported illegal possession of the elephant due to permit discrepancies.

The EMS Foundation, a South African social justice NGO, expressed deep concern for Tswale’s safety. The foundation said a previous Lowvelder article, which mentioned human interactions with the elephant, raised alarm bells for them.

Joubert had ambitious plans: a gruelling 100km mountain terrain race at Kingdom Trails, KwaMhlanga, on February 24. Her goal was to raise funds for Tswale’s rehabilitation and safety programme. She completed the 100km that Saturday.

Tswale, known for his friendly interactions with humans at the Lowhills farm, faced adversity when it lost its favourite dam during floods in Nkomazi last year.

However, the situation recently took an unexpected turn following the publishing of the article. This is when the EMS Foundation reached out to Lowvelder out of concern for Tswale’s and the public’s safety.

Questions raised around Tswale’s interaction with humans

Questions were sent to the MTPA in this regard, and Nomcebo Kunene, the acting senior manager of biodiversity conservation at MTPA, asserted that Joubert lacked the necessary permits for human interactions.

According to her, Joubert needed both a display permit and a holding permit. Although she claimed to have applied for a permit in August 2023 and to have made payment in September 2023, she did not confirm having applied for both permits, or stated for which one she had applied. She brought her application last year shortly after allegedly purchasing Tswale from his previous owner, Jan (also known as ‘Driken’) Grobler.

The MTPA contends that Joubert is not complying with certain requirements and therefore they cannot issue her with any permits.

In response to the MTPA’s assertion that no permits were issued to her, Joubert reiterated that she had made a payment to the MTPA in September last year. Joubert said she was under the impression that the MTPA would advise her if her permit was denied or if they required any additional documentation.

The MTPA said, however, that it has been sending emails to Joubert informing her that there is non-compliance.

Sonell Joubert and Tswale the elephant. Photo: Sonell Joubert

Conflicting narratives on Tswale’s history

Various stakeholders tell conflicting narratives of Tswale’s history.

The Marloth Kruger states on its website that Tswale was rescued as a young calf from a situation that threatened his well-being. He was orphaned and was in need of care and protection.

It said the Elephant Interaction Programme Tswale was entered into often includes educational sessions where guests can learn about elephant behaviour, conservation efforts and the importance of protecting these creatures.

The site says elephants face numerous threats in the wild, including poaching and habitat loss, and programmes like the one at Lowhills Safaris play a vital role in raising awareness and supporting conservation initiatives.

By participating in elephant interaction and hearing the heart-warming story of Tswale, visitors not only create lasting memories, but also contribute to the conservation of these incredible animals, ensuring that future generations can continue to marvel at the beauty of elephants in the wild.

On the Tswale.co.za website, it is stated that Modjadji, Tswale’s sister whom he was orphaned alongside, died in August 2022 as result of a tragedy. It is alleged that three nomadic rogue elephant bulls from Mozambique had landed up at KwaMadwala, where Tswale and Modjadji had been staying.

A horrific attacked ensued, and Modjadji, in her self-appointed role as protector, positioned herself in a way that led to her bearing the brunt of the onslaught. Modjadji and Tswale were both injured badly. Modjadji was euthanised as a result of her injuries.

These statements are denied by various NGOs as well as a conservationist stating that Tswale and his older, now deceased sister were allegedly chained when they were not used for elephantback safaris or human interactions.

One NGO claims that they were chained, that they had suffered injuries in 2022 when they were spooked by some hunters and/or when a herd of wild elephants entered the property upon which they were being held. It is further alleged by the NGOs, such as the EMS Foundation and others, that it was the chains that ultimately led to Modjadji suffering fatal injuries and her ultimately tragic death.

Joubert, who had been using the elephants for human interactions but was not the owner of them at that stage, said she was not aware of the above allegations.

Ongoing investigation and public safety concerns

The National Council of SPCA (NSCPA) confirmed it is busy with a criminal case that involves Tswale, however, as this is an ongoing investigation, it is not permitted to provide Lowvelder with the identities of the suspects, the alleged charged or any additional information. The NSPCA, however, confirmed that it is actively busy with the investigation as it is still looking into the matter, and the suspects haven’t been charged.

Kunene said Joubert is placing the public at risk by still allowing people to visit Tswale. Megan Curr, the lead researcher for the Towards Freedom Elephant Programme at the EMS Foundation, said that if Tswale injures a person by accident, he will be the one that will be euthanised, therefore the public should be made aware that according to the available records, there is no elephant management plan or applicable permits to allow Tswale to be ‘operated’ in the tourism industry.

Joubert said she has never been advised by the MTPA not to allow any human interactions with Tswale, and therefore she continues with interactions between him and humans up to four times on some days.

Read original story on www.citizen.co.za

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