Search ends in tragedy as body of one ranger retrieved

2012-06-26 00:00

THREE days of intensive searching ended in tragedy when the body of one of the two missing rangers from northern KwaZulu-Natal was retrieved from the murky waters of a Zululand lake yesterday.

Today, the man’s family will have the grim task of identifying his body.

Authorities have declined to reveal if the remains are those of Mbazwani Mhlongo (57) or his colleague Phumlani Mthembu (34), who both disappeared around midday on Friday, while paddling a confiscated dugout canoe on Lake Nhlabane.

What is almost certain is that a second body will be found today in the vicinity of the capsized craft, not far from the shore where the pair had launched, bringing a tragic end to the search.

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife spokesperson Musa Mntambo said the body was found intact, while two shotguns, which the rangers had been carrying, were also recovered.

A gill net, which the men, along with two other colleagues, had confiscated during their patrol, was among further items brought to the surface.

“It looks like they drowned,” said Mntam­bo, while ruling out foul play. Poaching and illegal fishing is rife in Zululand’s reserves, where the terrain is often inaccessible. According to a University of Zululand zoology research paper, the Nhla­bane coastal lake system is one of four freshwater coastal lakes near Richards Bay. It is found in the dune area mined by Richards Bay Minerals.

Mntambo said further searching was called off after conditions in the water worsened with the recovery of the body. Visibility beneath the surface was hampered by silt and thick beds of weed.

Police divers will pick up in the same spot this morning, said Lieutenant Jack Haskins, of the Pietermaritzburg K9 Search and Rescue unit.

Haskins said a police helicopter spotted the canoe, a marker was placed on top of the vessel and a diver dropped in.

The body was found a metre from the canoe. “It was in the vicinity of where my dog had indicated [a positive detection of a body] on Saturday, but the conditions weren’t good then.”

Haskins agreed with Mntambo that the tragedy appeared purely accidental, saying the canoe showed no signs of being attacked by hippos or crocodiles which infest the region’s inland waters.

Earlier in the day, the names of both missing men were released. In a statement, Ezemvelo said Mhlongo had been at Enseleni Nature Reserve, near Empangeni, since joining the provincial conservation body in 1976. A champion of conservation, Mhlongo was named Best Field Ranger last year by Ezemvelo. He is married with six children. Mthembu, who joined Ezemvelo in 1995, was recently transferred from Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park to Enseleni. He has one son.

• brett.horner@witness.co.za

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