By Heather Dugmore for the WWF Nedbank Green Trust
Photographs by Chris Marais
One of the largest camera trap surveys ever undertaken in the world is starting in the Karoo, focusing on predators, farming and biodiversity.
Since September 2012 a total of 180 camera stations have been set up over an 80 000 hectare area, spanning 17 sheep farms in the Laingsburg-Beaufort West district of the Karoo.
The camera traps are being used as part of a three-year research project on the effect of predators on sheep farms, combined with a biodiversity assessment of the area. Smaller assessments have been done on individual farms, but never on this landscape-level scale.
A way forward for Karoo farmers besieged by predators will hopefully be found in the course of the project, which is being funded by the WWF Nedbank Green Trust and managed by the University of Cape Town’s Sustainable Societies Unit in its Centre for Social Science Research (CSSR).
“Karoo sheep farmers are losing livestock to jackal and caracal at an unsustainable rate. They are forever being told to stop persecuting predators and at the same time they are being told to produce food. We need to understand exactly what is happening on these farms from a holistic perspective, including an assessment of predators, farm management and the general biodiversity status of the area,” says behavioural ecologist Professor Justin O’Riain of the University of Cape Town’s Department of Biological Sciences, who is partnering with the CSSR on this project.
In the field is Marine Drouilly, a PhD student O’Riain is supervising. An incredibly hard-working researcher who is passionate about the project, by February 2013 she had surveyed a large area of farms that are part of the project using the 180 camera traps, which are spaced two kilometres apart. This survey resulted in a huge number of photos of many different species.
“The findings will be released in a few months’ time, but preliminary observations indicate that small livestock farming in the Karoo supports a healthy diversity of wildlife. Blanket statements that this agricultural sector is the greatest threat to biodiversity are simply not supported by the data,” says O’Riain.
Drouilly will compare the data with data she is gathering in the Anysberg Nature Reserve – one of CapeNature’s reserves southwest of the project farms. There is a strong perception that nature reserves and game farms provide refuges for jackals.
“She is currently repeating the grid of camera traps here, and she will be able to compare the biodiversity and predator density in this area, where there is no grazing impact or competition from sheep, with that of the farms in the project area and with what the predators in the respective areas eat,” O’Riain explains.
Another dimension of the project involves the catching and collaring of jackals and caracals, and the use of satellite technology to understand how they navigate the landscape, how they respond to so-called jackal-proof fences, the size of their home range in farming areas compared to the size of the natural control areas, and, if there is a difference, whether it is because there is more available prey or because of the presence of the apex predator, the leopard, in the reserve.
“We also want to establish what they eat and where they drink,” continues O’Riain. “There is a strong sense that the movement of these predators into the Karoo over the past couple of decades could have a lot to do with the establishment of permanent water on farms and in nature reserves, as jackals need access to permanent water sources.
“Historically, many species, including jackals, would have moved into and out of these areas in accordance with the Karoo’s unpredictable rainfall. The provision of permanent water may therefore have changed the ranging patterns of many species.”’
Six jackals and six caracals are being collared in the Anysberg Reserve, with six more of each in the farming areas, so that their daily movements and their hunting and dietary behaviour can be tracked. The researchers want to understand the spatial and behavioural ecology of predators in these markedly different land use areas.
“We have asked the farmers for permission to catch and collar on their farms and to allow these collared animals to remain in the area and they have obliged,” says O’Riain.
“This level of cooperation is unheard of,” adds Associate Professor Beatrice Conradie, Director of the Sustainable Societies Unit and agricultural economist on the project.
“We enjoy the support of the entire community. The ecological work is focused on a core area of 80 000 hectares of continuous farmland, but a concurrent management survey covers about three-quarters of the land in the district.”
The purpose of the management survey is to investigate the levels and determinants of the profitability of sheep farming.
Laingsburg is a very marginal area. Rainfall is in the order of 120 to 130mm a year. The average flock size is 642 ewes, but a quarter of the flocks consist of fewer than 300 ewes each and half the farmers have an income similar to that of schoolteachers.
“We don’t know what the best management practice for predators will be at this stage. What we are offering is sound collaborative science from which we can then discuss the way forward. I suspect that some form of control will be necessary, but ‘How’ and ‘What’ are the bigger questions that need to be addressed after we have concluded the baseline research,” says O’Riain.
Non-lethal alternatives are a hard sell, since many farmers believe that culling is an integral part of the way forward.
However, after analysing hunting club data from the 1970s, Conradie arrived at the paradox that the more predators are killed on a given farm, the more stock losses rise.
“What is special about this project is that we are talking to each other about these issues,” says Conradie. “At stake are farmers’ entire livelihoods but also the livelihoods of the entire local economy. If agriculture disappears, Laingsburg only has the N1 and that is not enough to maintain a viable town.”
Regarding the biodiversity assessment part of the project, the team would like the project area to be compared with, for example, the wheatland area around Caledon in the Western Cape, where they would like to repeat exactly the same camera grid and research format.
“Many people don’t think of the wheatlands or winelands as having an impact on biodiversity because there was such a massive impact on biodiversity historically that much of the biodiversity in that region has been lost,” says O’Riain.
“It’s very possible therefore that, despite all the finger-pointing at livestock farmers, they could well be far better custodians of biodiversity than many other forms of agriculture. The project might prove this.
“It might also reveal that grain eaters have a substantial biodiversity impact that is potentially higher than that of meat eaters.”
Postscript: Another very interesting study called: “Jackal Narratives and Predator Control in the Karoo, South Africa” was published in June 2013 by UCT’s Centre for Social Science Research. The historical tables are particularly revealing. Find the study here: http://cssr.uct.ac.za/sites/cssr.uct.ac.za/files/WP324_0.pdf