By Dr Gerhard Verdoorn, Griffon Poison Information Centre
Photographs by Chris Marais
Speculation about the possible mass poisoning of South Africa’s national bird, the Blue Crane, close to Richmond in the Northern Cape Karoo can now be put to rest.
Toxicological analysis of a stomach content sample of one of the dead Blue Cranes revealed a very high concentration of diazinon.
Maize was soaked in diazinon and laid out to poison the Blue Cranes.
Diazinon is widely used as blowfly remedy for wool producing sheep in the Karoo.
It has been implicated in deliberate and accidental poisoning of Blue Cranes on a number of occasions in the past, but the Richmond case is the worst of its kind to date.
According to witnesses the individual believed to have poisoned the cranes also made statements to the effect that he used aldicarb to poison the Blue Cranes.
More Than 200 Blue Cranes Poisoned
Due to the limited samples that were available to the Nama Karoo Foundation who requested support with the investigation from the Griffon Poison Information Centre, it is not possible at this stage to ascertain whether aldicarb was also used to poison the cranes.
Circumstantial evidence however, indicates that more than one poisoning incident was committed and it is therefore highly likely that further evidence may reveal pesticides other than diazinon.
The Northern Cape Department of Environment and Conservation, and the South African Police Service collected carcasses of frozen dead Blue Cranes and we are awaiting the outcome of their forensic investigation.
Given the statements made by farm workers it is highly likely that in excess of 200 Blue Cranes were deliberately poisoned over a period of time since 2012.
It is feared that this number may be an underestimate of the true number of cranes that perished in the poisoning campaign.
South African Law and Poison
Poisoning of birds (apart from the Red-billed Quelea which may only be done by the Department of Agriculture to protect small grain crops) is prohibited in South African law.
It is a contravention of Section 9 (1) (b) of the Northern Cape Nature Conservation Act, 2009 (Act No. 9 of 2009) to “hunt” a wild animal by poisoning such animal – in this context “hunt” is described amongst others as killing.
It is also a contravention of Section 2 (1) (d) and (n) of the Animal Protection Act, 1962 (Act No. 71 of 1962) to poison an animal.
Regulation Nr. R1716 of The Fertilizers, Farm Feeds, Agricultural Remedies and Stock Remedies Act, 1947 (Act No. 36 of 1947) prohibits the use of a stock remedy (such as diazinon) for any purpose other than what the label indicates, hence another contravention of national legislation by poisoning Blue Cranes with a stock remedy.
The most daunting penalties are found in Threatened or Protection Species Regulations No. 152 of the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act, 2004 (Act No. 10 of 2004) under which a person who, without a permit, kills a threatened or protected species with a poison may be liable to a fine of R100 000 or three times the value of such animal and/or a five year prison sentence.
The penalties under Act 36 of 1947 and Act No. 71 of 1962 are insufficient to address poisoning of this serious nature but should be supporting the justice department to adequately penalise the individual if found guilty. Penalties under Act No. 9 of 2009 may be as severe as ten years imprisonment.
Call for Thorough Investigation
The Griffon Poison Information Centre appeals to the Northern Cape Department of Environment and Conservation, and the South African Police Service to leave no stone unturned in a speedy and thorough investigation of this poisoning incident.
It is inconceivable that any individual should be allowed to deliberately poison Blue Cranes that are classified as vulnerable under the IUCN Red List Categories with a population of around 25 500 individuals that are threatened by direct poisoning, powerline collisions, habitat loss and illegal trade.
It is the duty of the state to execute its constitutional obligation to bring wildlife crimes such as these to justice – the public have no mandate to enforce legislation but we are most willing to assist in way we can to bring an end to the scourge of deliberate wildlife poisoning.
The Nama Karoo Foundation and the Griffon Poison Information Centre offer our full support to the law enforcement agencies to ensure that the individual is laid bare before the law.
Apart from the poisoning incident there is also habitat modification and land-use change on the farm where the poisoning occurred that appear to be questionable.
The keen interest, investigations done by, support offered to the Griffon Poison Information Centre, the Northern Cape conservation agency and the SA Police Service by the Nama Karoo Foundation of which most if not all are farmers, is highly commendable.
Had it not been for farmers and farm workers who care about the wildlife of the Karoo, this heinous crime would have gone unnoticed.
Since the news about the poisoning broke in the public media, farmers from all over the country have called to express their disgust at this crime and to offer their support to safeguard the Blue Crane population.
Farmers in the Nama-Karoo, Overberg, Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Free State and Mpumalanga Highveld have all agreed that Blue Cranes deserve the highest level of protection that could be offered to an indigenous species.
Despite our offer to assist the law enforcement agencies we strongly urge them to ensure that this investigation is carried out with the professionalism the citizenry demands of state agencies.
Warning on Pesticide Misuse
The investigation should have been done in 2012 when the first evidence of the deliberate poisoning was uncovered.
We also appeal to the National Prosecution Authority and the Department of Justice to wildlife treat crimes like these with the serious attention that it warrants – such crimes are speeding up the extinction of species.
We also urge the Minister of Agriculture to respond to a request levelled at him in the last quarter of 2014 to amend Act No. 36 of 1947 so that it can meet the demands of modern society. We can no longer live with legislation that imposes penalties of R1 000 for transgressions with pesticides that threaten our indigenous wildlife.
The Nama Karoo Foundation and the Griffon Poison Information Centre lastly issues a warning to anyone in the Karoo that misuses pesticides that we will pursue such individuals relentlessly irrespective of the costs.
Poisoning is rapidly decimating the sterling conservation efforts of those who hold the Nama Karoo and its wildlife close to their hearts as one of the last frontiers of South Africa.
(This press release was issued on 10 March 2015.)
- For more information please call Dr Gerhard Verdoorn, Director of the Griffon Poison Information Centre on 082-446-8946.