Inside South Africa’s national parks, private nature reserves and other conservation areas, wild creatures are largely protected from harm inflicted by humans. When they live or stray outside of these dedicated conservation zones, however, they frequently come into conflict with people. As the human population grows, settlement, mining, industrial and farming areas expand and interactions between wildlife and people become increasingly common and fraught with difficulties.
How to handle rogue wild animals?
Draft legislation proposes cruel and unethical methods for dealing with problem wild animals, including the use of poison, hunting dogs, gin traps as well as extermination in their burrows by flooding them with toxic gas. These methods are often indiscriminate, causing the deaths of many other animals.
On November 10, the Department of Environmental Affairs published proposed norms and standards on how so-called ‘damage-causing animals’ were to be dealt with. But many conservationists complain that these new regulations are outdated and legitimise unacceptable methods for controlling or killing problem animals.
The document defines damage-causing animals as “an individual or group of animals” for which there is proof that they are causing substantial loss of, or damage to, livestock, crops or other property, or present a threat of injury or loss of life to humans.
Upon inspection of the circumstances by an official, the responsible authority may propose ways to intervene to prevent the damage or danger, for instance by deterring, translocating or killing the problem animals and the document provides guidelines on how these measures are to be carried out.
Many commentators feel that the proposed regulations define damage-causing animals so broadly that they include virtually all wildlife outside the boundaries of conservation areas, but perhaps the biggest criticism is that they legalise methods to manage these animals that are cruel and unethical.
These include the use of poison, hunting dogs, foothold traps – more commonly known as gin traps – and denning, in which animals like jackals are exterminated in their hides or burrows, usually by flooding them with a toxic gas.
While the norms and standards set out minimum requirements for these methods and suggest that some of them “may require a permit”, they are known to frequently result in the painful and drawn-out death of animals.
Many are also indiscriminate, destroying the intended target animals as well as a variety of other species, often with detrimental ecological consequences. Vultures, for instance, are frequently killed in large numbers when farmers try to bait predators with poison-laced carcasses.
Opponents of the new regulations have questioned whether such methods are compatible with the South African constitution, which provides for the prevention of ecological degradation, the promotion of conservation and ecologically sustainable development. They may also run counter to existing laws, such as the Animal Protection Act and create confusion over other regulations already in place in the country’s provinces.
While the document spells out in considerable detail which techniques are permissible when dealing with damage-causing animals, what is conspicuously absent is a list of methods that are prohibited. Critics are calling for brutal activities, including the use of gin traps, denning, hunting dogs, poison and helicopter hunting, to be banned outright and want these prohibitions to be included in the norms and standards.
The norms and standards do not make it mandatory for alternative mitigation methods to be tried and documented prior to implementation of lethal methods. Many other methods exist, such as the use of alpacas to protect flocks from predators and beehives to protect crops from elephants.
Also missing are provisions to ensure that problem animals can’t be sold to hunters for killing or sold after they have been killed. The regulations should, furthermore, make it illegal for permits for the killing of damage-causing animals to be issued retroactively. It should not be possible for anyone to kill an animal first and receive permission to do so after the fact.
The proposed norms and standards may offer some protection for animals, suggesting that any measures employed should, whenever possible, be non-lethal and ecologically acceptable but, while emphasising people’s duty “to prevent or minimise damage being caused by damage-causing animals”, they fail to clearly spell out any reciprocal animal welfare obligations on the part of humans.
No provisions are made to assign responsibilities to specific government agencies when it comes to dealing with problem animals, which is a real problem in many situations. When a zebra recently wandered on to a Gauteng golf course, for instance, there was no response from Gauteng Nature Conservation and the NSPCA’s Wildlife Protection Unit was left to treat and translocate the animal at a substantial cost.
Far greater emphasis should be given to ecologically sensitive interventions that have proved highly successful in situations where conflict exists between wild animals and human communities. In Botswana, for example, wildlife corridors have proved extremely effective in fostering peaceful coexistence and such measures should be given high priority over ethically questionable and environmentally damaging ways of killing troublesome animals.
Members of the public have until December 10 to raise objections to the proposed new norms and standards and can email their complaints to firstname.lastname@example.org.