*Jackal marries Wolf’s wife
Well-known environmental scientist, presenter of the documentary programme ‘Groen’, and lecturer at Stellenbosch University, Dave Pepler, shares his thoughts on conflict in wildlife management.
It is with heartfelt sadness that I have to report on yet another dilemma facing the members of the South African Association of Wildlife Management. First reported in Die Son, a leading newspaper, and soon thereafter taken up by Noseweek, this story broke recently.
A well known sheep farmer from Brandvlei, Barend Moerdyk, living near Verneukpan, recently started reporting massive sheep losses due to exsanguination. Every morning he would find more and more sheep lying in pools of blood, showing only tiny bite marks to the great arteries of the neck, but with no other physical injuries visible. The traditional predators of sheep were quickly discounted as there were no tell-tale bite wounds and associated field signs near the prey.
In exasperation, Moerdyk started staking out his sheep at night, in the end resorting to expensive imported night vision equipment. To his utter amazement, later verified by sober neighbours, he found the culprit to be a hare. Boldly, in moonlight, mutes of hares would approach the sleeping sheep and pounce with mighty leaps.
Upon alighting on the hapless animals, they would inflict neck wounds, and then retire to lick up the free flowing blood. After feeding, Lepus haematophagus, as the vampire hares became quickly known, would disappear into the night, leaving the sheep to bleed to death.
Needless to say Moerdyk made quick work of reporting this to the local agricultural extension office, the Dutch Reformed Church, the Brandvlei Hunter’s Association and to the Minister for Agri culture. The minister, keen to keep his political flock appeased, called an emergency meeting in the Brandvlei Hotel, which was a big mistake, with a wide representation of interested parties in attendance. Within minutes, the problems started – a almighty melee broke out when the chairman asked a tiresome speaker whether his train of thought had a caboose, after which the meeting dissolved into chaos.
The farmers were pitted against the ILLU (International Lagomorph Lovers Union), provincial conservation authorities, treading water, immediately requested a long-term study, a number secunda donnas from environmental NGOs preached holistic solutions and the spokesperson from the Pink Loerie Festival in Knysna, saw
sinister motives in targeting bunnies. In the back of the town hall, the voice of a tall, brooding scientist with a salt-and-pepper beard was heard to shout: ‘If it pays, it stays’ just before the constabulary baton charged the unruly mob.
Fanciful scenario or plain truth
Is this a fanciful scenario? No, I think not, because we have ample historical evidence of similar conflicts arising throughout history. From the Epic of Gilgamesh we have reports of wolves taking both game and livestock, from the clay fragments of Tell el-Amarna, Akhetnaten tells of marauding lions and hyenas, Herodotus reported on this issue and from South Africa we have the detailed accounts of Anders Sparrman.
To this day the same problem persists universally with only the problem animal changing in time from feral hogs to fallow deer, badger, lion, leopard, otter, coyote, jackal and caracal and locusts. In historic attempts to solve these issues, kings were pitted against serfs, Karoo farmers against conservation authorities and animal lovers against everybody else. Just in our country alone, the conservation issues around predators such as leopard, caracal, cheetah and black-backed jackal are constantly the subject of spats, recriminations and above all, a loss of precious time.
What then do we stand to do in the face of such consistent failure? I am reminded of a passage from the profound The lives of animals by JM Coetzee where he offers, in passing, a kernel around which to start working towards a solution. I quote: ‘When opponents are at loggerheads we say: “Let them reason together, and by reasoning
clarify what their differences are, and thus inch closer. They may seem to share nothing else, but at least they share reason”. Jakob Bronowski understood this only too well when he said: ‘Man masters nature not by force, but by understanding’. Once reason is established, we can then move on to at least two points of departure.
Firstly, we should recognise and adhere to the central tenets of conservation biology – a crisis discipline – simply because decisions have to be made daily with limited information, and under extreme time pressure.
Some of its most important functions are the determination of the best strategies for protecting rare species, which brings me to an aside on rarity. We must be extremely careful in allocating rarity status to any animal if we are not scientifically convinced that this is so. I am afraid that in many cases charisma and perceived value of a species override its true status. For instance, the once critically endangered Riverine Rabbit is now feeding in Tannie Kittie
Vermeulen’s carrot patch in the outskirts of Laingsburg.
The selection, design and placement of nature reserves and parks also fall under this function, as well as multiple use management plans for conservation areas and the thorny issues of conservation concerns versus the needs of local people.
The second point of departure is that of environmental ethics – concerned with the moral relations that hold between humans and the natural world, that is, those never exploited by humans as well as areas modified by humans. From this we derive that a humancentred theory of environmental ethics holds that our moral duties
with respect to the natural world are ultimately derived from the duties we owe one another as human beings.
So, we have human ethics (that holding among ourselves); environmental ethics (between humans and the natural world); and ethics of bioculture (concerned with the humane treatment of plants and animals in artificially created environments).
In terms of competing claims and priority principles, which is when moral dilemmas arise when human rights and values are in conflict with the good of non-humans, they are all legitimate in human terms, as long as the real question of appropriate alternatives are met.
Way of thinking
How easy it is to misunderstand one another. Years ago, in the early 1970s, my friend Rob Martin and I were asked to compile the first bird list for the Karoo National Park. On one of the early visits we were introduced to the previous owner of the land, in order to glean some historical data. There was only one problem though in that Rob could hardly speak Afrikaans, and the farmer even less English. After numerous brandies the farmer ventured:
‘I hear, Martin, that you like birds?’
‘Yes,’ Rob said, ‘it’s been a lifelong passion for me’.