The guardians

Her life was short – She was only two hours old when the big zebra stallion bit and kicked her to death. She was a little newborn blesbok fawn and when I found her broken little body in the grass, I’d had enough.
Issue date: 13 March 2009

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Her life was short – She was only two hours old when the big zebra stallion bit and kicked her to death. She was a little newborn blesbok fawn and when I found her broken little body in the grass, I’d had enough. It was the third year in a row that Herod, as I’d named the zebra, killed about 10 of the newborns in the blesbok and wildebeest herds, at the start of the lambing and calving season. In previous years, I’d darted him and temporarily transferred him to a makeshift camp, but each time he’d broken out with his enormous strength, to continue for a while with his infanticide.

One day, when a stray dog ventured into the game park and Herod chased him mercilessly, I suddenly understood why he was attacking the strange new reddish newborns. He was wrongly perceiving them as a threat . Unable to stop this behaviour, I decided to shoot him. Donkeys act similarly, making them valuable livestock guards. The stallions can, like Herod, be a bit too aggressive, but one or two mares with foals guarding a flock of sheep can chase off any jackal or caracal. Although lions can kill them, their aggression is such a deterrent, that they’re used in Kenya to guard cattle against lion predation. Several other animals display very similar behaviour, which can be used to prevent, in a non-lethal manner, most attacks of wild predators and packs of stray dogs on livestock, which have escalated to epidemic proportions lately. To any field sportsperson this is far more acceptable than the uncivilised and cruel use of poison, gin traps and other devices to kill natural predators, which are just as much part of our heritage as the farmer on his land.

The classic livestock guards are dogs – there are at least 30 breeds specially bred for this and recognised worldwide. One of the best-known is the Anatolian shepherd, which has started to make its mark in South Africa and Namibia. This breed has been used for over 6 000 years in Turkey to protect sheep and goats against predators, including bears and wolves. If imprinted upon and bonded early enough to the flock as a puppy, a well-trained Anatolian can be a very good, non-lethal predator controller. Like all dogs it must, however, be well fed and trained to suppress any tendency to hunt other wildlife.

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Within the last five years, alpacas have been introduced here as another very promising livestock guard. Although domesticated about 4 500 years ago, these humpless camels, closely related to the llama, guañaco and vicuña, still roam the wilds of South America, where their strong herding and guarding instincts and aggressive behaviour are their only defence against pumas or mountain lions, which prey on them.

Space doesn’t allow detailed discussion of the finer points of animal guarding, but the most comprehensive guidelines on the subject are now available in the free 120-page book, Predators on Livestock Farms, from the Landmark Foundation (083 324 3344).
Another successful non-lethal technique to protect sheep and Angoras from attack is the use of protective collars, manufactured from either hard plastic or a galvanised steel grid. Leopard and caracal in particular, but also jackal, kill with a characteristic throat-bite which these collars can prevent. Some jackals have learned to attack differently, but if collars are used in conjunction with animal guards, they’ll have less opportunity to adapt. More information can be gleaned from the above-mentioned publication.

Unfortunately, the refinement and implementation of this long-overdue new approach is hampered by different stakeholders’ unwillingness to cooperate. On one hand, professional problem animal controllers and the majority of smallstock farmers insist on adhering to lethal control, practised for centuries, which has become unacceptable to millions the world over, and it doesn’t solve the problem.

On the other hand, environmental NGOs like the Landmark Foundation insist all lethal control should be outlawed. They’re willing to spend small fortunes of hard-accumulated funds to demonstrate to an unwilling farmer community that if done properly, non-lethal control does work. In a protective collar trial in Baviaanskloof with 7 000 sheep and goats, they reduced stock losses from 792 to 13 per annum, resulting in a nett saving of R715 000 in two years. These aren’t “pie-in-the-sky suggestions” or “a barrage of useless information” from a “few green-minded individuals”, as they are called by Petrus de Wet, president of the National Woolgrowers Association (Farmer’s Weekly, 14 November 2008), but an honest attempt to find solutions to the age-old predator problem, which
will be acceptable to the rest of the world – the opinion of which can no longer be ignored. And why is it, if someone expresses concern for the environment on which we all depend, they’re immediately labelled a “green activist”? Surely, this is a concern for the bulk of the farming community? Campaigning for non-lethal control, rather than unnecessary and cruel extermination of predators, doesn’t make the Landmark Foundation an animal rights organisation. Will those who so vigorously campaign for the ongoing lethal control of predators be satisfied to be labelled as “red activists”?

Meanwhile, there are still government officials at the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism who think they can solve all the problems with time-consuming talk shops and by compiling new impractical, ineffectual and unenforceable laws and regulations, to which farmers, jackal and caracal pay no attention.

The nature conservation sub-departments under their sceptre look elsewhere, while poachers erode the natural prey-base of predators and NGOs try to do their work. And on the sideline, the carrot- and bean-eating animal rights activists are dying for the chance to discredit animal utilisation and to achieve their ultimate dream – to have all livestock farming outlawed. Until legitimate stakeholders stop quarrelling and put their differences and self-interest aside, nothing will be achieved. Until they cooperate in finding practical and workable solutions in the field, which are acceptable to all right-minded, civilised people, as well as the public, the problem of livestock predation will never be resolved. And in the end, it’s nature that will have to pay the ultimate price. – Abré J Steyn
Contact Abré J Steyn on 083 235 4822 or e-mail [email protected].    
Source: Farmer’s Weekly, 14 November 2008, pg 44 to 45, Roelof Bezuidenhout.