Predator versus predator

In the wild, different species OF predators are usually eternal enemies. Lions will kill any other predator they can lay their paws on. Between rival smaller species, it’s no different.
Issue date : 06 March 2009

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In the wild, different species OF predators are usually eternal enemies. Lions will kill any other predator they can lay their paws on. Between rival smaller species, it’s no different. Even within a specific species, territories are constantly patrolled and marked and trespassers are severely dealt with or even killed.

Man is, however, the most ruthless, cunning and ultimate predator. He’s hunted most wild animals so relentlessly, many species have been driven to extinction. The woolly mammoth was one of them and throughout history man proved to be the greatest enemy of fellow predators. An example was the unbelievable slaughter of carnivores in the Kruger National Park for most of the past century.

A purely carnivorous predator can never eradicate its prey, because its own population will decline long before the prey is depleted, due to a diminishing food supply. Humans were able to prosper when prey animals became scarce, because they are omnivores. Meanwhile, they domesticated the wild prey species they’d previously hunted to ensure a reliable meat supply. Dogs were the first animals to be domesticated for use in hunting and guarding, but others like the aurochs – the ancestor of cattle – and wild boar, sheep and goats were regular prey.

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From the start, these ancient stockowners probably had to guard their animals against wild predators. In biblical times, it was an honourable profession to be a shepherd – King David was one, while Jesus was called the Good Shepherd. Times may have changed, but predators haven’t and to have someone guarding your flock around the clock still has merit. But with labour having become increasingly unreliable lately, it’s not the ultimate solution. Presently, it seems a combination of animal guards and protective collars is best against jackals and caracals.

The correct procedures for different localities and situations must, however, be worked out, which requires costly research only the state can do adequately. The natural prey base of predators must also be protected, so they aren’t forced to prey more on livestock. Near Clanwilliam in the Cape, like elsewhere, farmland poaching is rife. Here the mountains are systematically stripped of all small game by poachers with dogs, gin traps, snares and other devices, and the meat is traded. It’s known that a local farmer is even supplementing his labourers’ rations with poached duiker and steenbok, of which 15 were recently observed on his bakkie. I’m, however, informed that not a single recent, local anti-poaching arrest or investigation was conducted by nature conservation officials, who should be nipping this type of thing in the bud instead of sitting on their butts!

To make matters worse, we’re saddled with a government department like Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT), which has the last say in conservation matters, but has officials apparently clueless about what goes on outside their offices.
Despite leopards having been exterminated over most of the interior of South Africa, they’re presently merely classified as vulnerable, while the DEAT tried in 2005 to put caracals and black-backed jackals on the protected species list! Fortunately, this was swept aside by massive public reaction because of its absurdity.

These two predator species are largely responsible for the enormous stock losses in the country. While I’m not implying we should exterminate them, I’m emphatic about the DEAT’s supposedly expert authorities getting out to where the problem is and finding practical, non-lethal solutions to this age-old problem. They’re paid good salaries because they’re considered knowledgeable enough to create the laws and regulations which tell us all what to do. But if you read the section about the leopard on the DEAT’s Draft List and you see six of the 14 scientific names misspelt, you have to wonder about this expert knowledge. Maybe the department should pay someone from Trevor Manuel’s overflowing coffers, who’s truly knowledgeable, to find the solutions.

This work must now be done, without government support, by NGOs like the Landmark Foundation of Dr Bool Smuts. With limited means, it educates, conducts expensive research and generally tries to help farmers develop practical, non-lethal and humane methods to control predators, because the intensive lethal control (eradication) of the past 350 years obviously didn’t work. The 300 000km government-subsidised jackal-proof fences, erected since 1922 in South Africa and Namibia at over R36 000/km, didn’t work either. Today it would cost almost R11 billion for material alone, exclusive of labour and many years of maintenance.

All the bounties, the millions spent on dog breeding and official hunting facilities also didn’t solve the problem – not if you consider the massive losses smallstock farmers still suffer today. There are many reasons for this. One is that black-backed jackals aren’t entirely carnivorous, but omnivorous and opportunists. Where large predators occur, they scavenge, but they also hunt a lot of small prey – insects, other invertebrates and rodents. But some individuals don’t scavenge much and hunt larger prey like hares, springhares, mongoose, birds and newborn fawns. When we started killing them with poison or baited gin traps, we took out the scavengers first and selected in favour of the superior hunters. Eventually we were left with an entire population of clever super-hunters, which, when their usual prey got depleted, preyed on livestock.

In undisturbed jackal clans of stable populations, only the dominant individuals hunt and breed at between three and four years of age. Litters are small. Heavily persecuted populations, of which the dominant animals regularly get killed, respond by scattering, and all the roaming stragglers hunt and breed at ages as young as one year, with large litters. It’s nature’s way to ensure their survival – the faster we kill them, the faster they multiply. Their offspring return to fill vacant territories and we’re back to square one.

The only species we’ll eventually eradicate are the last free-roaming cheetahs in Namibia and the remaining leopards in the Cape mountains. We don’t stand a chance against jackals and caracals. Lethal control didn’t work in 100 years, so why should it in the future? I believe the answer lies in non-lethal control because it makes not only ecological, but also economic sense. Some farmers, doing this correctly, had great success. There are various approaches from Anatolian guard dogs, donkeys and alpacas to protective collars, which we’ll discuss in a future article. – Abré J Steyn
The Landmark Foundation recently produced an informative book, Predators on Livestock Farms, of which only 2 500 were printed. It wasn’t sponsored by government, as it should have been, but by Woolworths. For a free copy or to support the foundation, contact Dr Bool Smuts on 083 324 3344 or e-mail [email protected]. Contact Abré J Steyn on 083 235 4822 or e-mail [email protected].     |fw