(Picture: Stacks of timber illegally harvested from private land on Cloud 9. )
LANDOWNER ASKS QUESTIONS AS TO WHY NO ARRESTS WERE MADE
There was much alarm and consternation amongst the residents of ‘Cloud 9’ hill on the northern side of Sedgefield, when on 15 July, a group was discovered illegally stripping private property of an estimated R90 000 worth of timber.
It must be pointed out that this crime was not a case of a few subsistence firewood cutters trying to eke out a living, but a seemingly well-organised operation involving approximately 15 men, three tractors and a number of bakkies. An estimated 2,5 hectares of private land was harvested of pine in a short space of time, and logging trucks from at least one timber transport company had to be used to move the timber. Furthermore, the theft was perpetrated after permission had been denied, in no uncertain terms, by the owner of the land, Kurt Wucherpfennig.
According to one resident, who asked that his name be withheld, all of the land on the much-loved ‘Cloud 9’ ridge is privately owned. The residents have, on occasion, permitted two small groups of people to cut firewood.“But only blue gum and wattle, and only in very specific areas,” he explained, “While we understood their needs and wanted to accommodate them, we made sure that very strict protocols were followed whenever permission was requested so that it could not turn into a free-for-all or become a threat to our security.”
On 7 July, the same resident had been approached by two of the regular firewood cutters, asking if they could cut pine on a specific site. As it wasn’t his land and belonged to the Wucherpfennigs, the resident said he would ask the landowner on their behalf.
“Mr Wucherpfennig’s response was a very clear NO,” he said, “So I passed this on to the cutters and made sure they read the message.”
The owner later explained, “I declined the request to harvest wood as I am in the process of paying a company to submit a maintenance strategy to the Municipality which will require specific harvesting areas and firebreaks – so I did not want random harvesting to take place.”
So once this permission had been declined, it was presumed that would be the end of the matter. But clearly, it wasn’t.
Fortunately, the residents of the small community living along the ridge do tend to look out for one another, so on Thursday 15 July, when another resident (who also asked for his name to be withheld) came across the large team cutting logs on the Wucherpfennig land, he stopped to find out what was going on.
“A huge amount of timber had been harvested. There were stacks of logs waiting to be transported and at least twenty men working on the site. I could see three tractors and a number of bakkies,” he told us later. He approached one of the men and asked what they were doing and if they had permission. The man’s response left him feeling that it wasn’t safe to hang around.
“He got very aggressive and said that because it wasn’t my land, I could not stop them.”
After quickly taking pictures on his cell phone, the resident left the site. However, he wasted no time in making contact with the landowner, who fortunately happened to be in the area.
“I was on my way back to Cape Town from East London and had stopped off in Knysna for a few days to visit friends when I was alerted to the theft taking place on my property,” he explained.
The owner swiftly contacted the police, whilst another resident called ADT for assistance. Within two hours, the resident and the owner, along with police members in a SAPS van, and a number of security personnel in four ADT vans, swooped in on the site. They found the illegal timber harvesting was still in progress.
The working men were confronted by the men in uniform and ordered to stop what they were doing, but no arrests were made.
“I couldn’t believe it,” the resident told us later, “These men were caught red-handed, but not one of them was taken into custody.”
Instead, the SAPS members ordered the cutters off the site, instructing them to leave the cut timber and all the machinery and vehicles precisely as they were.
“We were even more surprised when the SAPS members suggested to the owner that opening a police case wouldn’t be worthwhile,” the resident informed us, “It was clear and blatant theft.”
Mr Wucherpfennig confirmed this.
“The police were more concerned about whether I had proof of ownership of the property on me,” he said, “But who carries their title deeds with them?”
The police members also asked him why there was no visible private property signage.
The owner hadn’t thought this necessary.
”The community often walk dogs or cycle on the property, which I have had no problem with up until now. We did have a gate some years back which was stolen.” he told us.
As far as he was concerned – this line of questioning from the police was simply deflecting from the theft that was going on on his land.
“Their whole approach was very passive and somewhat frustrating. I had to literally argue with one of the sergeants as well as one of the constables and insist on laying charges, despite the culprits being caught red-handed,” he said. “Perhaps that is why – despite the warning not to remove any of the wood that had been cut – the culprits felt emboldened to finish the job.”
Indeed the following morning, when he returned to the site, he found two of the three tractors had been taken away, as had a whole lot of the harvested logs. The remaining tractor was damaged, which was why, he presumed, it had been left behind.
Later that day, the owner was at the bottom of the ‘Cloud 9’ road meeting his neighbour to discuss firebreaks, when a truckload of timber came down the hill. They stopped it to chat to the driver and established it had come from the Wucherpfennig property and that at least four loads had already been removed.
“I couldn’t believe that despite their run-in with the police, the woodcutters had no fear of being held to account,” he said.
Since then, he has been regularly calling the police about the case but is yet to be contacted by the investigating officer.
We contacted the Knysna Police to enquire why no arrests had been made at the time, and if any had been made since. We received the following comment from spokesperson Sergeant Chris Spies.
“Knysna Detectives are investigating a case of theft with regards to this matter. Investigation into this case is ongoing.
“The allegations pertaining to police conduct must be reported to the Knysna SAPS station management for an investigation to be instituted.”