A trip to photocopy documents or access basic government services could lead to death or a lengthy spell in hospital. The coming of the rainy season has once again cast the spotlight on the daily danger faced by residents of Ephraim Mogale and Lepelle Nkumpi municipalities who have to cross the Olifants river to access services in Elandskraal.
Residents of villages on the eastern side of the river north of the farming and granite mining town of Marble Hall, access basic services such as social services, health, ATM, police station and other amenities in Elandskraal which is located on the western bank of the river.
There are no pedestrian bridges over this part of the Olifants. A return trip to Elandskraal via the R579 costs up to R50 by taxi or hitch hiking. With public transport being rather erratic a single trip could take hours.
have laid eggs. Goats are disappearing and we are worried,” says Jacob Mammekwa, ward committee member in the Ephraim Mogale local municipality who has been part of efforts to catch the crocodiles.
Last month, 39-year-old Mavis Mohlala was not as fortunate. She was attacked and killed by a crocodile while crossing the river from Kolokotela [believed to be adaptation of crocodile] while on her way to church.
Mammekwa says at least more than 10 people have either been killed or mauled by crocodiles in the stretch between the Flag Boshielo dam and the villages to the north.
“We are calling on the government to at least build a bridge because if they do, people will cross without injuries and those who come to the river to fish, it is their own problems because we told them not to play by the river. But those who cross are innocent people, they need the government, they need our help to have a bridge,” Mammekwa says.
Talane Leshaba of Mogalatjane was lucky to escape with his life when a crocodile grabbed him on his way from photocopying documents in Elandskraal.
“I just felt something grabbing my arm,” he says.
He knew he was in the jaws of a crocodile when with his other hand he felt its hard, slippery skin. After a brief struggle he managed to force the reptile’s jaws slightly ajar with his other hand. It let go and disappeared under the flowing river.
But Leshaba, who was admitted to the Matlala hospital for his injuries afterwards, was grateful to escape with his life.
The river also offers the unemployed a chance to make a living from fishing. But the men who sell their catch in the villages are not immune to the crocodile attacks.
Fisherman Wifred Mudzamatira who lives in Elandskraal bears deep scars inflicted by a crocodile on his thigh. He was fishing in an area where the water went up to his hips when he felt its sharp teeth sink into his flesh. It dragged him deeper into the water.
“My friends ran away,” he says, recalling the incident with a naughty smile.
“We fought for about eight minutes. I punched it and punched it. Then it made a mistake to open its mouth slightly. That’s how I escaped,” he says.
He hardly fishes now but doesn’t fear crocodiles.
“A crocodile is a very stupid animal,” he says, shaking his head. “It just wants to bite and pull you. It can’t do anything else.”
In 2017 when the area experienced a high number of attacks Mammekwa rallied the department of environmental affairs to help trap the reptiles. Initially the project proved successful. But the success became a problem.
“We caught the first [crocodile], the second and the third one. [But] instead of catching more crocodiles where people used to cross the river we experienced a problem that other people were coming at night to steal the crocodiles from the traps and sell them to traditional healers,” says Mammekwa who is also a farmer.
Mammekwa says soon after that word got around the area that the carcass of an entire crocodile could fetch over R10 000 allegedly from healers. Mammekwa says the thieves were so brazen they would wade into the river, remove the trap and extract the animal before getting away with it.
Different parts of wild animals, including a crocodile are used for medicinal purposes by certain traditional healers. However, it is believed unscrupulous people use the reptile’s brain and bile to make lethal poison.
“We heard they were selling the fat from the crocodiles. They were also selling that head for R1000, the skin and also the meat. [We heard] the total amount of a crocodile is up to R15 000,” says Mammekwa.
The project was abandoned prematurely as a result. No one was arrested for the theft and alleged sale of the reptiles.
“We decided to stop the project to avoid further problems,” he says.
The human-wildlife conflict, however, is not only restricted to the Elandskraal area and crocodiles, but it’s a global phenomenon involving especially crop damaging elephant and livestock killing predators.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says in a report titled Human-wildlife conflict in Africa – Causes, consequences and management strategies that the crocodile appears to have superseded the hippopotamus as the biggest animal responsible for more deaths on the continent.
The report, released in 2009 says crocodile attacks are common because the numbers of large crocodiles are high through the continent and their distribution range is wide. It also says that crocodiles can live in close proximity to people without being detected unlike lions and elephant and that their numbers recover quicker than other predators.
But until a bridge is built residents continue to live in fear and with the hope they won’t become the next victim of the reptiles. Myths, urban legends and rumours also thrive in the area. One of the popular rumours is that of a large crocodile whose body is covered in a roll of chains.
Zaid Kalla, spokesperson for the Limpopo department of environment and tourism says they regret loss of human life in the ongoing human-wildlife conflict in the province, which has also claimed casualties in communities along the world famous Kruger National Park.
He argues that the growing number of crocodiles is a sign of good environmental management and that rather, communities should respect the space occupied by wildlife.
“Our community members are not constrained to cross rivers and swamps as there are routes connecting villages. Members of the communities are often found neglecting utilization of availed routes in preference to shorter and life-threatening options,” says Kalla.
“Community members also unintentionally endangers their lives by swimming, crossing and even fishing within very hostile habitats and in close proximity to wildlife,” he says.
Kalla says the department will continue to host campaigns on educating and warning communities on safety precautions while confronted by wildlife. But until people find jobs or have a bridge to carry them across the Olifants, they will continue to fish and swim across as part of their daily struggle to survive.