Merit in predator-friendly farming

Farmers from Botswana Dr Mark Bing and Dr Jane Freeman, discuss the advantages of predator-friendly management practice, in response to an opposing article by Roelof Bezuidenhout.

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Farmers from Botswana Dr Mark Bing and Dr Jane Freeman, discuss the advantages of predator-friendly management practice, in response to an opposing article by Roelof Bezuidenhout.

There is no easy solution to controlling predators in Africa, especially since the advent of increased two-legged predation on all farm stock. O ften a farmer will be able to cope with some wild animal predation, a lot of which goes undetected. However, predation on stock from humans will compound predator intolerance. I think all over Africa, this picture will hold true. Unless we get on top of cattle and small stock theft, we will find it difficult to tolerate additional predation on our stock.

We are predator-friendly farmers from south-eastern Botswana, who are trying to find a solution to the age-old conflict that predators present. We’re working with interested farmers, who are farming sustainably and have good records, and with the predator conservation groups Cheetah Conservation Botswana and Leopard Ecology and Conservation. I feel this combination works, as the conservation groups can input the research and the farmers can cope with predators and come up with solutions using their own management protocols.

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In my management protocols accept a 3% calf mortality annually from heart-water, while 2% die from other diseases. consider predators part of Africa’s natural environment, so why should not also accept some losses, say 5% of the calf crop. With proper herd management can reduce losses. For example, accept the cost of heart-water is 5ℓ of dip to every 12 cattle, an annual cost of 48 000 pula (R56 787). lose animals despite that expense, but it is less due to my management protocols.

The same can be applied to predators. Herds in leopard and lion areas could be brought in at night to reduce predator losses. Reducing weaning weights could be introduced and conception rates increased by letting the bulls find the cows at their most fertile periods. Every management interference has a pro and a con. Financially, it’s just a matter of finding the balance. I believe farmers have an ingrained intolerance of predators (still have on occasion) and the energy spent on predator extermination is disproportionately large, compared to energy spent on good management protocols. If you’ve been poisoning caracal on your farm for 30 years, and your grandfather did the same, surely you would consider a change just as you would adapt to any other new tool.

In Zimbabwe I noticed that the worst rabies outbreaks were where the farmers poisoned jackal. Scientifically it’s easy to work out a correlation. Stable, non-poisoned jackal populations mean there are territories defined by scent-marking, not fighting. So, non-poisoned populations had stable territories and rabies was less easily transmitted. A rabid jackal does a lot more damage to sheep than a non-rabid one. Management principle applied: don’t kill jackal.

In October last year we collared a male leopard on the farm after it killed a calf. n 12 months it ate only four calves, despite the fact that a leopard is an opportunistic killer and that leave my cattle out at night. Scat analysis shows its diet consists mainly of dassies, hares and francolin. The Mannyanalong vulture colony is at the centre of its territory, where it plays a role reducing baboon predation on the colony. It’s a national record cat and its progeny would be useful to hunters. Hopefully it’s also a deterrent to cattle thieves. In Africa today we have something in great abundance that Europe doesn’t have – land. We could be the breadbasket of Europe if we wanted to and caught onto the bigger picture.

Soon we’re going to start a project in Botswana that will make use of the combined produce of like-minded farmers whose products are certifiable predator-friendly, and could be exported to the upper-end retail market – regionally and in Europe. These products will be sustainably produced from stock that are finished on pasture or in certified feedlots that maintain a low density of cattle, have good fly and manure control, and so on. fter five years we will extend our tried and tested management principles and share the information gathered with our developing farmers, who still live in areas of the country where there are large concentrations of predators. Botswana has the central and most sustainable range for cheetah and wild dog in Africa.

Hopefully, by maintaining indigenous wildlife along with cattle, the developing farmers will have an opportunity to exploit a niche in tourism, as well as cattle ranching. The facts are that as long as farmers and conservationists adopt an “us and them” approach – there will always be conflict. The fact that leopards only occur in 20% of South Africa and cheetah are endangered, illustrates the losses that have been incurred in South Africa over time. Maybe there would be smaller caracal and jackal populations in farming areas if the populations were stable and the bigger predators were still there to control numbers.

Sheep farmers would benefit from smaller camps and guard dogs, and bringing their sheep in at night. That would also mean fewer birthing problems, poisoning, red water and so on, and these would be more easily detected. Proper examination of carcasses would tell farmers if they have a disease problem or if there is just opportunistic scavenging that needs attention, such as embarking on a programme of humane trapping or shooting of the problem animal. Hopefully, we can work together.

In Namibia, Dr Laurie Marker’s Cheetah Conservation Foundation is successfully working with farmers. The solution to all the problems is education. With the reality of global warming, all farmers need to be up to date with market and global trends. Consumers are ever increasingly health-conscious and demand more for their money. There is a niche market for predator-friendly products that needs to be exploited. But it needs to be done in a transparent and accountable manner.
Forward-thinking, progressive farmers can provide high-end consumers with the products they want. The rest can provide the majority of consumers. That way, nobody loses out. Farming is about making money and making good management decisions. Contact Dr Mark Bing and Dr Jane Freeman at [email protected]