‘We were treated like slaves’, ex-game rangers claim after colleague trampled, gored by elephant


Alfonso Nqunjana, News 24

Date Published
Two former employees of Lapalala Wilderness, a game reserve in Limpopo, have spoken out about the risky working conditions they say workers were subjected to. They said an ex-colleague landed in hospital after an attack by an elephant.

Michael Matjila and Calvin Makiya said their former colleague was attacked by an elephant during a patrol. They said the elephant had ripped open the man’s stomach using its tusks, leaving him with his intestines exposed.

“We only asked one thing from the management and that is to prioritise our safety. How do you expect a person to walk into the wild without sufficient protection? We were told if we do not want to work, we can go,” Matjila said.

Matjila and Makiya were part of an anti-poaching patrol unit providing services to Lapalala Wilderness.

Makiya said 10 employees stopped working at the reserve because they felt unsafe as their concerns were never listened to.

“We felt like we [were] being treated like slaves. They would send us to the reserve at night without a car, and only one of us would be given a rifle and a company phone,” Makiya said.

‘My life comes first’

Matjila described how he narrowly escaped a one-on-one encounter with the elephant, adding that it took the management close to three hours to locate their severely injured colleague, who had been injured.

Matjila said:I was only given counselling after the incident, and I was told that I needed to return to work immediately. I said ‘no’. I decided to pack my bags and leave.
The father of three said he couldn’t continue putting his life at risk as such incidents could have been prevented if the rangers were well equipped.

Both Matjila and Makiya said they and their colleagues had requested management to allow them to use certain routes to avoid encountering animals. However, management refused to listen and told them to follow the routes given to them, they said.

According to Makiya, all they wanted from management was for them to put rangers’ lives first.

“It is challenging patrolling the whole night with only one person having a rifle, but my life comes first, and we had to protect ourselves by leaving.

“Some of the rangers decided to remain behind and work at the game reserve because it’s their only form of income even though it’s putting their lives at a huge risk,” he added.

Wessels and Vorster Incorporated, the law firm representing the company that hired the rangers, confirmed the trampling incident. It said Matjila had absconded from work, while Makiya had been “an insubordinate and problematic employee from the outset”.

“It appears that the persons who have approached you are nothing less than disgruntled and malicious – not even part of the incident which occurred or affected. They also approached other employees to leave our clients’ employ,” the law firm said.

In a letter sent to News24, Wessels and Vorster Incorporated said Matjila and the injured employee were doing patrols on the reserve on 18 May when the incident happened.

The company said employees get dropped off at a specific point and then patrol the reserve by foot to an observation high point. From there, they get picked up and taken in a vehicle to the next point.

“It was during this part where they were on foot that they encountered elephants. Michael Matjila and Chinja Sjambe split up. Chinja Sjambe was injured and attacked by an elephant.

“Chinja Sjambe and Michael Matjila were equipped at all times with the relevant equipment that a ranger requires – i.e., a firearm, radio, and company telephone. In this instance, they actually fired shots to alert the rescue crew where they were.

“The guards are not permitted to go into the field with their private cellular telephones while on duty for operational requirements which cannot be discussed… They are issued company telephones, which can be tracked and monitored.

The law firm said: Management actually provides guards with the necessary protection. An unfortunate event occurred, which our client could not circumvent. The incident was reported to and registered at the Workers’ Compensation Fund and South African Police Service, it said.

“A comprehensive debriefing was conducted on 19 May 2022. Michael Matjila was put on leave for the following week and then stationed at an 80-hectare site with no danger.”

Wessels and Vorster Incorporated said Matjila absconded on 18 June and never returned. He also did not answer any of the employer’s telephone calls, it said.

Makiya had been an insubordinate and problematic employee from the outset, the law firm added.

The company said Sjambe had been discharged from hospital and was being provided the necessary support.

Both Makiya and Matjila said the attack on Sjambe did not sit well with them.

“This is one of the things we were telling the management to look into, but we were never taken seriously. The only thing that matters are the clients and the money.

“To them, [we] are just security guards and nothing more.”