NOT easy keeping poachers at bay, even the small-scale ones.

Every day in our area of the south east Free State we see people, on horse-back or on foot, armed with sticks and with parties of dogs, setting off into the mountains. Hours later they come back carrying animals in sacks.

We regularly remove traps along fence-lines and sometimes even rescue snared animals. (If you ever find yourself in such a situation, call Free Me on after hours and emergency number 083 558 5658 ; it’s a wonderful organisation with experts always on hand – even on New Year’s Day we discovered – to help with practical advice about rescuing and treating trapped animals.)

Big-scale poachers of rhino, elephant and other endangered species are known to be brazen, well-armed and extremely dangerous. This week, however, I discovered that small-scale poachers are not only likewise armed and dangerous, but they have also added a new weapon to their armoury: the courts.

Judgment has just been given in a case heard by the high court in Swaziland and brought by Alson Masinga, 56, of the Lubombo district. He said he had been out cutting logs near the Mbuluzi river, then he went home and returned later with his nephew to help him haul the wood back.

Suddenly, and without warning, they were attacked by armed men who severely beat them causing various injuries for which they were hospitalised for a prolonged period. These attackers turned out to be game rangers, employed by the Big Game Parks Trust, a non-profit outfit in Swaziland managing the Hlane Royal National Park, the Mlilwane wildlife sanctuary and the Mkhaya game reserve.

As a result of the severe assault and the injuries he claimed to have sustained Masinga claimed R750 000 in damages from the trust.

The case involved an on-site inspection by the court because of a dispute about exactly where the alleged attack took place. But last week the high court gave its decision, rejecting the claim by Masinga and ordering him to pay the costs of the case.

Masinga claimed, among others, that two assailants pounced on him and his nephew without greeting them, then assaulted him on the head and dragged him by his shoulders.  One of them gave Masinga ‘a black bag to carry’. The one who gave him the bag opened Masinga’s trousers and bit his penis. A vehicle then ‘arrived’ and carried him to the police station.

The court summed up Masinga’s injuries and the case he wanted to make: he sustained an injury on the head and ear, his right arm doesn’t function and ‘he experienced pain in his penis whenever rolling in the hay’. He denied he had been in the park or that he had any snares with him. When he was summoned to appear before the magistrate his case could not continue ‘because he could not speak’ as a result of the assault.

The high court however heard a completely different story from the game wardens. They said they were wearing their uniforms when they came across Masinga and another man. They identified themselves and the other man ran away but Masinga who had a bush-knife called him back to help fight the rangers.

During the ensuing scuffle one of the rangers dropped his stick. Masinga picked it up and then attacked them using both his bush-knife and the stick. The ranger’s hand was injured in the fight and he produced a medical report on the injury as a result of which his hand still has no feeling.

When the rangers subdued Masinga they found 13 wire snares in the black bag. Masinga subsequently showed them two snares set in the bush nearby. The rangers had meanwhile radioed their supervisors who came to collect the two men and dropped them off at the police station. The police reported that Masinga claimed he was unable to speak, but the next day his speech had returned.

After an on-site inspection lawyers for both sides agreed that the incident had taken place well inside the reserve, rather than outside the reserve and close to his home as Masinga claimed. There was no medical evidence to back up Masinga’s claim of the injuries that continued to trouble him and the court also found that he contradicted himself on the number and type of weapons with which he had been attacked.

The court concluded that the two men had indeed been poachers and dismissed the damages claim ordering that Masinga pay the costs.

Obviously this money will never be recovered by the trust, and it seems that legal costs incurred by poachers who have a go at litigating could be an additional burden for which game reserves must budget in the future.