Thia article appeared in Business Day Live on 8 February 2016, written by Heather Dugmore
PREDATORS such as the black-backed jackal cost SA more than R1.3bn a year in losses of sheep and goats. The annual loss of cattle to jackals is more than R380m and antelope on wildlife ranches are also vulnerable.
This equates to losses of more than R2bn each year.
This is according to extensive surveys conducted in the past decade by Prof HO de Waal and his postgraduate colleagues at the Department of Animal, Wildlife and Grassland Sciences at the University of the Free State.
In an attempt to reduce these unsustainable losses and their associated risks to food security and biodiversity, many farmers have been targeting jackals and other predators, such as caracals, with lethal results. Yet, the jackal population is more resilient than ever.
"There is always the risk of management interventions developing unexpected and adverse outcomes — and even increasing the problem.
"This is what is happening with our on-farm black-backed jackal populations control measures," says top South African zoologist and conservation ecologist, Prof Graham Kerley of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in the Eastern Cape. "The jackal females on farms breed younger and have more offspring at a younger age as a compensatory response to lethal management. The same response is not happening on nature reserves."
Last year, Kerley co-authored an article published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, based on two years of jackal research from October 2011 to October 2013 in three conservation areas — Karoo National Park, Mountain Zebra National Park and Addo Elephant National Park — and on farms adjacent to these Eastern Cape reserves.
The research is the first time the response of jackals to lethal management has been quantified rigorously in SA, and it indicates that killing jackals is not effective without improving other management measures, notably fencing and hands-on management.
The paper, entitled, "Compensatory life-history responses of a mesopredator may undermine carnivore management efforts", is co-authored by Liaan Minnie (a PhD student at NMMU supervised by Kerley) and Dr Angela Gaylard of the South African National Parks’ scientific services division.
"On the farms where jackal are hunted, we found that about 70% of one-to two-year-old females that have only just left their parents at 11 months, are already breeding.
"The average age of the jackal population on farms, where they are hunted is under five years," Kerley explains.
"On the reserves, by comparison, only about 20% of this age group is breeding. On average, it takes jackal populations on reserves three years longer to achieve the same level of reproduction that jackals on farms are showing."
Jackal females can live to seven years or more, producing an average of about three pups each year. Research suggests that young female jackals on reserves are socially constrained from breeding in the natural territorially maintained hierarchy, and will breed only when they can acquire enough food resources to get their body condition up to reproductive form.
Farmers who do not hunt jackals, absent farmers and weekend farmers, and nature reserves are often blamed for creating breeding grounds for jackals. However, as Kerley points out: "Sheep and goat farmers, in particular, need to appreciate that they are contributing to the problem by creating attractive habitats for the predators with lots of food.
"By hunting the predators, they are also contributing to the compensatory response pattern of younger predators breeding," he says.
Kerley says all participants should come together to understand what is happening with the jackal and other predator populations, such as caracal and leopard — on both conservation areas and on farms — and work towards more effective, collective management approaches.
He says the research needs to be expanded throughout SA to start understanding key issues such as the genetic structure and movement of jackal around the landscape.
Minnie has already completed extensive research on the genetics, diet and population structure of the jackal for his PhD through NMMU, which he is preparing for publication.
De Waal adds: "We have created a serious imbalance of predators like black-backed jackal and caracal, and if we do not address this problem, not only will we lose more farmers and put food security even more at risk, we will see an increase in condemned methods of predator control, such as poisoning.
"SA urgently needs a formal, state-driven system to manage predation and employ best practices at a national level to achieve this.
"If a farmer is constantly battling against predation, it creates a financial burden on the farmer and a socio-economic burden on the state, as it results in farm losses and job losses," he says.
De Waal says the insufficient political will being shown by the government in support of livestock farmers and wildlife ranchers is "very worrying.
"Drought, livestock theft and predation are the three biggest threats to farmers, and the government is not showing anything near the kind of response and support for farmers that it should, and that is par for the course in other countries," he says.
"In the absence of government leadership, the livestock and wildlife industries have founded the Predation Management Forum and are currently trying to source finances to establish a predation management information centre.
"It will be based at a university because of the depth of scientific support required to understand the problem and initiate a co-ordinated best-practice response at a national level. The envisaged centre will also actively lobby the participation of the departments of agriculture and environmental affairs," De Waal added.
Kerley and De Waal agree that, in the meantime, farmers need to focus on appropriate fencing and increasing their hands-on stock management as a matter of urgency.
"The more frequent contact farmers and farmworkers have with livestock, the lower the losses. Human presence on farms definitely plays an important role in predator management," says De Waal.
Justin Kingwill, a farmer in Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape, explains that to reduce his loss of lambs from predation by jackals, he erected nine kilometres of 1.8m-high jackal-proof fencing around 2,500ha, which he patrols twice a week.
"It is working really well. While the odd jackal has managed to get through the fence at a river crossing, the patrols have largely eliminated this. Out of 1,850 lambs this season, I have possibly lost 10."
The fencing, labour and machinery costs are expensive. It cost Kingwill about R250,000, but he emphasises it is absolutely worth it.
"I definitely think that good fencing and diligent patrolling and management of your livestock is the future when it comes to controlling predators. I encourage other farmers to do the same."
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