by Philip Faure, PPP Community Engagement Officer
On Saturday May 21st we went down to Kranspoort to assist one of the rural farmers in building a corral for his cattle. To our shock we came across an attacked calf. The bite marks on the back of his head and along its neck were still fresh. Even some drops of what looks like saliva were found on the calf’s fur. This clearly didn’t happen long ago. It must have happened just a few minutes before we got there.
Farming with livestock in the Soutpansberg Mountains are not the easiest of practices. Drought, theft and an unstable economy are all complicating factors when you are trying to make a living from livestock farming. At the end of 2014, it was said that we went through the driest year on record, however, when 2015 came around it ended up being even drier. The lack of adequate rains does not help with forage production at all. Livestock farmers have to feed bought food for their animals since the land often cannot provide enough food. Overgrazing is common throughout large parts of South Africa and consequently so is bush encroachment. The fate of the livestock farmer is further confounded with rural poverty leading to theft or even snaring for bushmeat. Snaring which often can lead to even livestock being killed or maimed by wire snares, not to mention leopards and other wild animals.
This post however, is about our community engagement efforts providing advice and assistance to farmers with the building of predator proof bomas to corral animals. Poisoning seems to be a common management tool in the face of livestock predation. That’s why we have been helping out in some of these communities to build predator proof bomas where livestock can be corralled during the night. While helping the farmers build their own corral we get the opportunity to discuss and educate them on carnivore ecology, their feeding behaviours and prevention of livestock depredation. We also get the chance to raise awareness about environmental issues with them by talking about the declining leopard population in the western Soutpansberg and about the effects of snaring and poisoning. I always try to hammer on the fact that it is not necessary to kill predators if you farm smartly. Sometime I have to repeat this message a few times before I am believed.
After we finished building the corral in Kranspoort we showed it to the farmers. I explained that if you keep your calves smaller than a certain size out overnight then you might lose them to a leopard. But, if you close calves inside every night then you wouldn’t. They were not happy and were not convinced that it will keep a leopard out. To prove me wrong they took the attacked calf, placed it inside the new corral and closed it up. They asked if I could put up cameras. I did. Now, I have made a promise to them stating that the leopard won’t be able to take the calf because the corral is strong enough. I have never tested any of my corrals in such a way. But the new day will tell.
The most frequent problem I have encountered thus far in relation to livestock losses by carnivores is people do not corral their animals at night, especially in mountainous areas such as the Soutpansberg Mountains. Many of the people I have worked with do not have access to information and thus don’t know what to do. Young calves (up to the age of roughly 7/8 months), goats and sheep are the most susceptible to depredation. Older, larger cattle are less likely to be killed by a leopard, caracal or black-backed jackal. African wild dog and spotted hyaenas are a different story though. Leopards are known to favour mountainous terrain and therefore in these areas one must be extra careful not to leave ones livestock out in the mountains overnight. Riverine areas are another dangerous area. Leopards know that other animals need to drink water which makes it an obvious hunting ground. When placing watering points on your farm it is also important to avoid these dangerous areas. You would not want to create a waterhole for your livestock in an area where it is easy for them to be ambushed or attacked (e.g. rugged, mountainous terrain). The argument I often use with people is, would you leave your wallet in the middle of a busy market place and leave your car unlocked overnight in a dangerous street? So, are your cattle not similar to your wallet or car in that it is also an asset?
These are only some the possible conflict mitigation strategies but it depends from farm to farm. Each situation will be different and each farmer will be different. Conflict can also arise from species other than predators, such as monkeys, baboons, warthog, bushpig, porcupines, bushbuck, duiker, and some other animals. Social identities, economic climates and tolerance levels also come into play when dealing with the mitigation of human-wildlife conflict. One farmer finds it hard to kill a butterfly whereas the other finds it exhilarating to shoot a trophy leopard or lion. Not every farmer has the money to implement electrical fences and not every farmer can afford to lose one cow a month.
So, what happened the next day? When we got there the next day, there were fresh leopard tracks around the corral. I checked the videos on the trail cameras and saw a male leopard circling the newly built corral. It stood right next to where the calf was lying on the other side of the corral and watched it. Then, it left. I was relieved to firstly find the calf inside the corral and secondly to have footage of the leopard unable to enter the corral as evidence. I met with the cattle owner and some of his farmer friends to show them the videos. They were amazed and finally believed in my corral’s efficacy.
Cold fact is, when you farm in the northern parts of South Africa, then you have to live among a lot of different predators and you have to account for potential risk. A business that does not account for risk is not well thought through. We try our best to help people with advice, knowledge and assistance where possible to prevent human-wildlife conflict and livestock losses.