Poachers may kill game farms - Weekend Argus

9 March 2019 - As poaching chews away at their operations, farmers find themselves largely on their own – an unfortunate set of circumstances that mirrors much of their current experience

Terence Corrigan

Crime is an affliction that gnaws at South African society. For the farming community, the threat it poses often assumes near-existential dimensions. Most South Africans would be familiar with the phenomenon of murder and violent home invasions to which farming households – and those of their employees – are subjected.  

But violent, interpersonal crime is not the only criminal threat that farming faces. Nor, from the point of view of the sustainability of the farming economy, is it necessarily the most important one. Farming is a business like any other. Its viability hinges on the security of its assets, and crimes directed at them can push a farm to collapse.

A surprisingly prominent and damaging issue is poaching. While it might be tempting to think of poaching as a mere nuisance, for many in the farming economy, this is rapidly developing into a significant threat to their viability.

Last year, a report by Agri-SA on crime affecting farms reported that more than a quarter of farms (close to 29%) had experienced illegal hunting in 2017. KwaZulu-Natal is particularly vulnerable to this. Agri-SA’s report suggests that the province has been hit particularly hard in terms of the preponderance of poaching incidents (with the Free State and Limpopo in terms of the financial losses suffered).

This is not typically the headline-catching poaching of rhino or elephant, and the consequent trafficking of their parts to markets abroad. Rather, this is the illegal hunting of plains game, typically antelope, and which may – at least in principle – be hunted for their meat. By all accounts, it is on the increase.

In general, the template for poaching is well-established – globally – as trespass and the illegal pursuit and killing of animals. In South Africa, it is frequently undertaken with packs of dogs to run down and despatch their targets. But there are important nuances in the manner in which hunting is conducted.

On the one hand, there is an element of what might be described as ‘artisanal’ or ‘subsistence’ hunting. This will invariably involve members of local communities hunting animals for food. While damaging, the relatively small scale on which it takes place limits the overall impact. As a product of necessity, it can be dealt with by engaging such hunters and by offering alternative sources of meat.

Far more serious is hunting carried out on a semi-commercial basis. This may be done to harvest game for resale. But it is also linked to gambling, with participants betting on their packs bringing down prey. This is frequently described by the moniker of ‘taxi hunting’, since those engaged with it often work in the taxi industry and transport their dogs in this way. As one conservation officer told the website Traveller24: ‘It appears the outcome is solely for the participants to bet on anything, from whose dog and which dog will make the first kill, to which species of animal will be brought down first.’  

This is not trivial. Hamish Skead, professional hunter and farm security coordinator in the Escort area, has extensive experience of this, having regularly been confronted by large hunting parties. The scale is chilling:

‘In my time, I’ve seen hunting on various levels – from subsistence all the way to the massive gambling events. In the biggest, you literally can’t count the dogs. They stretch for kilometres. I’ve seen three of four taxis packed with dogs arrive for hunts. You just lose count of them. When they’re set to hunt, the damage they can inflict is mind-blowing. Consider that three of them can bring down a full-grown Kudu bull… Not much can get away, especially the smaller game.

‘The hunters meanwhile are also armed. Not always with hunting weapons, but with handguns. For me as a hunter, or for a ranger to confront them is a risk. You can’t get into a firefight.’

Hunting of this nature sends ripples through the farming economy. Anthony Arde, another farmer in the Escort region, points out the multiple impacts. The most immediate of these is on wildlife. Concerns have circulated since the 1990s about the link between the decline of various species, such as Cranes and Oribi, and dog hunting. Wildlife is a farming resource, feeding the tourist potential of the countryside. Its destruction represents a material loss for farmers – and for the economic prospects of the broader community.

Says Arde: ‘Illegal hunting, especially the gambling stuff, is wiping out the genetics of the game population. The dogs kill indiscriminately and go particularly for the young, which disrupts the natural replenishment of the herds. Oribi are endlessly killed by dogs… Dog hunting has also made the game go skittish. It’s increasingly difficult to get near the animals. And this spoils the tourist attraction, since tourists want to see them in their natural habitat.’

Moreover, combating poaching imposes its own raft of costs. One is fencing in properties – in a frustrating attempt to keep poachers out – along with the repeated need to repair them. Erecting fencing can approach R200 000 a kilometre; so to fence in a sizeable property demands an outlay running into the millions. Another is the necessity of hiring rangers to monitor and protect the game. Training costs are high, and at an average monthly cost of between R9 000 and R10 000 to employ a ranger, the price tag for a team large enough to act as an effective deterrent may be prohibitive. And on top of this, the prospect of a violent confrontation with poachers necessitates keeping a legal team on retainer.

To be sure, technological innovations such as thermal imaging cameras and magnetic sensors offer potential solutions – but again, at a steep price.

And when animals escape after poachers have destroyed the fencing, rounding them up and returning them is another expensive endeavour, requiring trackers and sometimes helicopters.

For an industry already pressed by tough economic conditions, these are stresses that many farmers find difficult to withstand.

Unfortunately, poaching has grown on the back of a larger problem. It has been enabled by the frayed state of governance. Hamish Skead argues that the mishandling of land claims has produced a situation in which ownership rights over game have become confused in many instances. In others, farming has ground to a halt, meaning not only that management of the land and its wildlife has collapsed. Under these conditions, managing game populations – and keeping hunting within legal limits – is difficult in the extreme.

The state agencies responsible for acting against poaching – the police, the justice system and the Parks’ authorities – are under-capacitated to deal with these issues. Police stations, for example, lack the vehicles and crime intelligence resources to combat poaching. Even though poaching is a crime, it is by no means clear that poaching is regarded as a crime to be prioritised. And there are strong suspicions that police and government officials are involved in the practice.

As Skead sums it up:

‘This is a governance issue… where poor decisions are being backed up by poor delivery and poor support systems and then compounded by a non-existent police force. The judicial system is also at fault as I have personally had 16 court cases for poaching-related incidents and have never had one result in any kind of prosecution. The dockets were either lost or statements were so bad that a half decent lawyer could tear them apart.’

Poaching is damaging agriculture as an industry and wreaking great harm on a fragile ecology. There is a profound irony and shame in this. It takes place at a time when the stewardship of the natural environment is being recognised as a strategic policy imperative that demands appropriate attention. Yet botched policies, indifferent administration and corruption within the governance system ensure that this is not forthcoming. And so, as poaching chews away at their operations, farmers find themselves largely on their own – an unfortunate set of circumstances that mirrors much of their current experience.

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations. Readers are invited to join the IRR, and to mandate it to speak on this issue, by sending an SMS to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).

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