Three suspects believed to be involved in the burning down of aha Bongani Mountain Lodge in Mpumalanga are due to appear in court on Tuesday.
The suspects, aged between 28 and 37, are allegedly part of a group of people who deliberately vandalised, burgled and set alight the famous lodge, situated in the Mthethomusha Game Reserve, which borders the Kruger National Park.
They face charges of arson, theft, malicious damage to property and public violence.
The incident took place on 31 January.
Police said the group of people drove to the entrance of the lodge in a white SUV. They allegedly used stones and tree branches to barricade the entrance.
When police arrived at the scene, they had to clear the road to gain access to the lodge, during which time the suspects reportedly broke several doors and stole liquor and other items from the lodge’s accommodation facilities.
They then began torching rooms and infrastructure before fleeing the scene with the stolen goods.
The lodge’s damages have racked up a bill of at least R9 million.
“Employees at the lodge reportedly had to run for their safety as they witnessed the horrific event unfolding in front of their eyes,” said Brigadier Leonard Hlathi.
Firefighters and emergency personnel arrived at the scene shortly after to extinguish the blaze.
A manhunt launched after the incident revealed information reported to police that resulted in the suspects’ apprehension. One of the suspects was found with items believed to have been stolen from the lodge.
On Sunday, information was received that poaching had taken place in the game reserve where the lodge is located.
Nine carcasses of impala, inyala, a rockjumper and a spotted genet were found, and are believed to have been killed earlier, but poachers were forced to flee the scene before collecting their loot.
Knives, pots and torches were also found near the carcasses.
This lines up with lodge manager Steven Schneier’s version of events, which he revealed in an interview on The John Perlman Show on 702 last week.
Schneier said the arson attack occurred after an alleged shootout with the lodge’s anti-poaching rangers. In the shootout, a poacher was said to have been shot and killed. He said the lodge’s rangers denied shooting anyone.
Schneier also said that after the shootout, the lodge had received a warning from fellow community members that “something might happen”.
That Sunday, a group of people made their way to the lodge and burned it to the ground.
Police said a manhunt had also been launched for the alleged poachers, and that “arrests are eminent”.
Police are also investigating allegations that some members of the group involved in the burning of the lodge were reluctant to do so. A case of murder is also being investigated in the Matsulu area, after a man was found dead in his home.
Anyone with tangible information that could help police solve these cases are urged to call Detective Captain Vusimuzi Thobela on 082-469-1956. Alternatively, they can call the Crime Stop Number on 08600-10111, or send information via the MYSAPSAPP.
Compiled by Nica Richards