The war on predators

It was the second-last day of my sponsored hunt and I still had nothing in the bag.
Issue Date 25 May 2007

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The Kruger Park was no safe haven for wild dogs.
Here they have become the second most-endangered carnivore on earth.

It was the second-last day of my sponsored hunt and I still had nothing in the bag. I was hunting near Stockpoort, close to the Limpopo on the Botswana border. I wanted to shoot a red hartebeest or a gemsbok as I’ve never bagged one of these before. I was hunting alone, without a tracker, when suddenly I saw some impala dashing through a clearing. I could hardly believe what happened next: one of the young ewes made a sharp turn and came streaking straight towards me. Hot on her heels was a cheetah in full flight. In a cloud of dust, the cheetah overtook the impala and tripped it. In an instant it had her by the throat. I was stunned – the impala lay kicking less than 10m from me. When the kicking and breathing stopped the cheetah let go and looked up. Seeing me, it jumped to its feet and raised the hair on its back. I backed off slowly, turned around and left it in peace. It was one of the most wonderful sights I’ve ever seen as a hunter. But not everybody shared my view. Arriving back at the lodge, I could not contain my excitement about my ­wonderful experience, but the reaction was like an explosion. The entire staff grabbed their rifles and in a trail of dust, roared off in their bakkies towards the eastern fence-line, where I had told them the kill took place. Meanwhile I hoped that on the western boundary, where the kill had actually ­happened, the cheetah would eat fast and slip back over the river to safety. The next afternoon I became a predator myself when I shot a gemsbok, making my kill very close to where the cheetah, of which there was now no sign, had made his. In the wild, predators do not have much tolerance for each other. I realise that when humans, the ultimate predators, protect animals on a small area like a game farm for their own use, they don’t want to share them with other predators either. The cheetah is, however, an endangered ­species; instead of being hunted it should have been darted and taken to a safe haven like the Kruger Park, where it could help to control the overpopulation of impala. In my career as a conservationist not everybody shared my views either. Mostly it was the top brass who often did not agree that protecting and managing the habitat was more important than concentrating on elaborate law-enforcement and permit systems, aimed mainly at the protection of animals. So rather than wrestle with them any longer, I retired early and carried on working in my own way. One of my projects was a consultancy service to assist game ranchers to improve the management of their farms. In most cases, where our advice was ­implemented the habitat improved greatly. Carnivore slaughter Ironically, it was in the Kruger Park that possibly the biggest ever orchestrated slaughter of predators inside a game reserve took place, during the first half of the 20th century. During the first 26 years of ­Stevenson-Hamilton’s reign as chief warden of the Sabi Game Reserve, he faced ­tremendous public pressure to exterminate all predators so that the game animals ­(antelope) could multiply. The rangers were given a free hand to destroy all predators and to keep and sell the skins, but ­unfortunately few records were kept. The exception was Stevenson-Hamilton’s personal detailed tally of the lions he shot – around 150. Not only those animals classified as “carnivores” – lions, hyenas, leopards, cheetahs, wild dogs and jackals – but all meat-­eaters were shot, trapped or poisoned. This included all smaller cats, badgers, civets, genets, mongooses, crocodiles, snakes and birds of prey. Four antelope species that require long-grass veld and which are nowadays rare in the Kruger Park are waterbuck, sable antelope, roan antelope and tsessebe. In 1912 the rangers estimated that the ­population of these four species was equal to the 6 000 impala in the reserve. Six years later they were twice as numerous as the impala. But with the carnivores on the decline, the impala began to multiply unchecked. They are extremely adaptable, more so than other antelope. They can eat either grass or leaves; they prefer short-grass veld and actually thrive on deteriorated veld. Without sufficient predators they gradually out-competed the other four species, whose populations started to dwindle. A change of policy In 1928 the reserve became a national park and Stevenson-Hamilton’s attitude towards carnivores changed, as he became convinced of the positive role of predators in “the balance of nature”. It was decided that carnivores would henceforth only be killed with his permission or when instructed, and records had to be kept. Wild dogs, however, were much hated as their hunting method was considered cruel and they could be killed freely. From 1928 until Stevenson-Hamilton retired in 1946 a total of 7 377 recorded carnivores were destroyed. This included almost 1 000 lions, more than 250 crocodiles, 250 leopards and 400 wild dogs. At about this time public opinion also started to change. As they do today, people wanted to see lion, and the killing tapered off. But the damage was already done; carnivores were now severely depleted and the impala population exploded unchecked during the next 40 years. In 1988, impala numbers were almost 20 times greater than the other four antelope species combined. During my recent week-long trip to Kruger, unsurprisingly we did not see a single sable, roan or tsessebe and only about 10 waterbuck. That week the only carnivores I saw were one cheetah with cubs and two jackals. It is clear that the rangers have won the battle against the predators (the wild dog is now the second most-endangered carnivore on earth) but against the impala they surely lost the war. – Abré J Steyn Contact Abré J Steyn on 083 235 4822, (012) 811 1975 or e-mail [email protected]. |fw