Jozini Dam: Twenty-five slaughtered elephants later, tourists in a viewing boat come under poachers’ gunfire

Tourists viewing elephants from a boat on the Jozini/Pongolapoort Dam in northern KwaZulu-Natal ducked for cover on Wednesday as suspected elephant poachers opened fire.

Eight foreign tourists and four South Africans came under gunfire attack on a double-decker floating tour boat in KwaZulu-Natal on Wednesday — unwitting bystanders in a broader drama involving the recent slaughter of at least 20 elephants from a wandering herd now “trapped” on the borderline between Eswatini and South Africa.

The tourists — who came under fire shortly after 10.30am on the eastern shores of the Jozini/Pongolapoort dam, which is on the southern border between SA and Eswatini — dived for shelter as several shots were fired on their elephant-viewing tour boat.

Cowering on the decks of the “Jozenic” tour boat, the group took cover after being fired upon, allegedly by a group of nearly 20 armed men linked to the recent slaughter of about 25 elephants and other illegal wildlife poaching activity around Jozini Dam.

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An elephant carcass floats in Jozini Dam. (Photo: Supplied)

Local elephant and rhino monitor Suzette Boshoff, who was on the boat when the vessel was fired on, described the attack as “the scariest day of my life”.

It is understood that there were eight foreign tourists on the boat — five Germans, two Americans and one Australian — along with four South Africans.

Over recent months, several elephant carcasses have been discovered along the shoreline of Jozini Dam after a herd of more than 70 elephants went walkabout during a severe drought more than seven years ago.

The decomposing carcass of another elephant calf at Jozini. (Photo: Supplied)

The herd, originally from the private Pongola Game Reserve, wandered into Swaziland via the shallow lake shores, before returning to South Africa around 2016.

The herd later ran into conflict with rural communities — culminating in the death of a local resident in September 2022, who was trampled by an elephant cow.

The exact circumstances of that incident remain unclear, but it is understood that the cow went on the attack in retaliation for the killing of its calf by elephant poachers.

The carcass of an elephant decapitated elephant at Jozini. (Photo: Supplied)

Some sources have suggested that the death of resident Bheki Nyawo triggered a family vendetta against the herd, leading to the killing of up to 25 elephants in the area over recent months.

The conflict has been exacerbated by attempts to control illegal gill-netting of fish in Jozini Dam by criminal syndicates, along with disputes over cattle grazing in a local nature reserve close to the Eswatini border.

According to Boshoff, about 25 of the original herd of 74 elephants appear to have been poached in recent months. In one of the most recent incidents, an elephant carcass was discovered floating in the dam on New Year’s Day with one of its tusks removed.

Appeal for national intervention

Heinz de Boer, a Democratic Alliance member of the KwaZulu-Natal Legislature and provincial party spokesman on environmental affairs, has condemned the latest attack on tourists and elephants and appealed for national intervention.

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A police investigator uses a metal detector to scan an elephant carcass for bullets. (Photo: Supplied)

“Armed groups of poachers have now completely laid siege to the eastern shores of the lake, with several elephant carcasses recently found, while dozens of gunshots have also been reported in the region,” he said.

“Guards near the Eswatini border have allegedly also come under attack and infrastructure damaged and torched by the armed gang.

“Furthermore, the DA has now also received video and photographic evidence of a tour boat coming under fire by armed gangs who continue to lay illegal gill nets in the lake.

“The rampant lawlessness and decimation of flora and fauna within this community has long been highlighted, with the conflict brewing for years. Yet, to date, government has failed to secure this tourist and wildlife haven.”

De Boer alleged that the lake was being “systematically stripped of its fish stock” by poachers, while concerned locals tried to halt the poaching.

“The DA will escalate the ongoing war against poaching to the highest levels of government and demands the swift arrests of those who believe they can destroy our natural heritage and tourism sector. The situation can no longer continue.”

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The tusk of an elephant recovered by police after recent ivory poaching cases at Jozini Dam. (Photo: Supplied)

Boshoff told Our Burning Planet that 12 charges of attempted murder had been laid at the Pongola Police Station on Wednesday, but a SAPS spokesperson did not respond to requests for official confirmation of the complaint.

Boshoff, however, remains concerned about the future of the displaced elephant herd, fearing that it will continue to be slaughtered unless there is urgent intervention.

“I have been begging authorities to get this herd out of harm’s way. These animals are trapped and it breaks my heart. We need to find a safe place for them.” DM/OBP

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