Escaped game is not yours to shoot

The booming game industry has had an unintentional spin-off – animals escaping onto neighbouring, unfenced properties. Whom do these animals belong to now? The answer is not as simple as it seems, and farmers who shoot first and ask questions later could be in trouble with the law.

As game ranches proliferate and game reserves become bigger, wild animals increasingly escape onto neighbouring properties. There, they may be welcomed or tolerated for a while, or unceremoniously shot – either maliciously or through ignorance of the law.

Stray animals not only cause problems on farms but also on provincial reserves or protected areas where they are not necessarily wanted, particularly if they are exotic or not endemic to the area. Sometimes, these animals remain on one property or move around and eventually end up far from their place of origin, making it difficult for anyone to determine their owner.

But ignorance of the law is no excuse. Illegally shooting an animal could cost you dearly. The Game Theft Act 105/1991 provides for fines of between R8 000 or two years’ imprisonment and R40 000 or 10 years, plus an additional compensation fine of between R20 000 and R75 000, depending on whether the case is handled by a magistrate’s court or a regional court.

The point to keep in mind is that game are usually classified as res nullius, meaning that they belong to no one, and that ownership is acquired by legally hunting an animal within the proclaimed hunting season, buying them, or breeding them in an enclosed area.

According to the Game Theft Act, a person does not lose ownership of game that has been bought and removed if it escapes from a vehicle, kraal or camp, or from his or her registered game farm. This means that you cannot shoot an animal simply because it happens to be on your farm. If you do, the rightful owner could claim the value of the animal from you.

Identification

On finding a strange animal on his farm, any decent farmer would contact his immediate neighbours to ask if they are missing such an animal. But because there is no way anyone can identify an animal unless it has been clearly marked or has specific characteristics that may serve as proof of ownership, problems may arise.

Obviously, if your neighbour has introduced eland, for example, and he has the proof or transport permits (which you don’t have), it would be fair to concede that any eland that suddenly appeared on your farm would be his. It would therefore be wrong to hunt it. The right thing to do would be to give the neighbour a fair amount of time (perhaps 14 days) to remove it at his expense.

Even if he does not claim ownership, don’t shoot the animal before you’ve covered yourself against prosecution by advertising – in a local newspaper – the fact that the animal has appeared on your property. That should be proof enough that you’ve made reasonable attempts to find the rightful owner, allowing you to claim them as yours or hunt them within the boundaries of the law.

Naturally, if you and your neighbour have the same type of game, there would be no point in fighting about ownership if there’s no way to identify animals. Few ranchers know exactly how many of each species they have, so going by numbers could be dicey. Rather come to a gentleman’s agreement before the problem arises. If the neighbour wants to retrieve the escaped animals at a time or in a way that does not suit you, common sense and good manners should prevail.

For example, he may have several impala running around in a camp where your goats are kidding, and may want to chase the animals back to his property instead of darting or shooting them. This will be unacceptable to you and will require discussion.

If the escaped animals harbour a potential disease threat, a state veterinarian can be called to shoot the intruder after consultation between the parties. Blood tests may be taken, after which the owner of such game can be held responsible, should it turn out his animals were infected and could have caused disease.

Who will be held liable?

While no one is liable for damage caused by game, such as kudu, that occur naturally in an area and are not fenced in, animals that have been introduced into the area are the owner’s responsibility. He can be held liable for any damage such an animal may cause on someone else’s property, if it can be proved that the animal belongs to him.

If, for example, a kudu from a CAE (certificate of adequate enclosure) game farm jumps the fence and strikes a car, and it can be proved that it came from that camp, the owner will be liable. But hunting such an escaped animal outside the proclaimed hunting season is also an offence in terms of nature conservation laws.

In general, a game owner must ensure that he keeps the animals within adequate enclosures to ensure they do not escape and cause harm to someone else. He has to know the fencing/captivity specifications for the various classes of game
for a CAE.

The needs differ for jumpers such as impala, and creepers such as a lion. For dangerous game, there may be additional requirements, such as an action plan in the event of an escape, and insurance to cover the owner against civil claims. However, building new fences or even maintaining existing ones has become prohibitively expensive.

Note, too, that if a farmer introduces game onto his property without the necessary transport permits from the conservation authorities or without the required fencing, he won’t have any legal ground to stand on should they escape. Unfortunately for livestock farmers, there is little they can do about losses caused by predators breeding on neighbouring game farms or parks.

The same goes for warthogs and bush pigs that damage fences and crops but have proliferated to such an extent that their numbers are out of control. A common complaint is escaped black springbok mixing with common springbok.

•The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.