Handling the leopard dilemma

A farmworker was recently badly mauled by a leopard on a game/citrus farm at Hankey, west of Port Elizabeth. This incident has led to the formation of a committee of concerned livestock and game farmers who feel over-zealous conservationists are misreading the leopard situation in the 500 000ha Greater Baviaanskloof. A member of this committee, livestock and game farmer Arthur Rudman of Blaauwkrantz Safaris, Uitenhage, spoke to Roelof Bezuidenhout.

How bad is the leopard problem?
Predation by leopards is increasing and so is the danger they pose to farm dwellers. In fact, attacks on humans have been predicted for a long time. Researchers and conservation NGOs claim there are only 30 or so territorial leopards left in the area, but farmers agree the core population is expanding in size and roaming further.

If the population growth is allowed to continue in the same way as the black-backed jackal, we could soon be in serious trouble. We’re already seeing unprecedented stock losses due to leopards in the Valley Bushveld and increases in the Karoo, north of the Baviaans Mountains, as well.

Why are leopards such a problem for farmers?
Predators, like all wildlife, have to be managed wisely, otherwise their natural prey base will collapse, forcing them into farming areas. These leopards have no natural enemies and cause extensive damage to game and livestock, while also interfering with biodiversity and farm management. There’s also the threat to humans.

Farmworkers are becoming reluctant to work in the veld without protection. Leopards are beautiful cats and we certainly don’t want to eradicate them. But there’s a fine line between profit and loss in farming. And the psychological well-being of rural people must also be considered – no one should have to live or work in fear.

Why such an increase in numbers?
Unfortunately, researchers and environmental entrepreneurs, who have never lost livestock to predation, have a different mindset than commercial farmers. Their approach to predator control – ineffective to date – is often dictated by their sponsors. Irrational animal rights brigades have negatively influenced the views of urban people worldwide and have pressured authorities throughout Africa to such an extent that wildlife management priorities have been grossly neglected for more than half a century.

Another contributing factor is that many previously productive livestock farms have been bought by state departments or part-time farmers in the past 25 years. Since then, no predator control has been practised on those properties. In the east of the Klein Winterhoek Mountains, farmers always used the “bottom” veld to lamb in the winter months and the mountains for adults in the summer. Now both the environmental affairs department and the farmers have abandoned the mountains, leaving vast stretches of good grazing fallow.

Are you getting the necessary cooperation from the authorities?
Actually, the farmers of the Greater Baviaankloof believe the Eastern Cape Department of Environmental Affairs (ECDEA) in Bisho is starting to recognise the problem for what it is. Phumla Mzazi, biodiversity manager of the ECDEA, has already asked her colleagues to approach stakeholders and find solutions.

It’s even been decided that the predator committee will, in collaboration with the department, formulate a questionnaire to be completed annually by all landowners regarding leopard activity on their farms. This should give us the necessary records on which to base future strategies. We certainly can’t allow affairs to be dictated by emotional NGOs unsympathetic towards the needs of the livestock and game farming communities.

What is the solution?
As leopard control is such a sensitive issue we must all use common sense and be practical. A good first step would be to allow 35% of the state-owned land in question to serve as a leopard sanctuary and to be managed accordingly. On the other 65% (privately owned) farmers must be allowed to protect their assets. 

Wildlife management doesn’t mean allowing all systems to return to nature. Doing that often has severe unintended consequences. For example, wolves re-introduced from Canada to the states of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana in 1996, as a result of pressure from environmental groups, have almost destroyed the elk population.

Calf survival rate has dwindled to 10%. Mountain lions present a similar problem, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service is about to increase hunting quotas for them. Government agencies also trap mountain lions and wolves on public land and allow farmers to hunt them if they venture out of parks.Ineffective legislation benefits no one. This is why the focus should be on consensus decision-making.