During the night of 12 April 2008 a young male leopard loped towards the boundary fence of a farm in the Glenconnor area, near Uitenhage, Eastern Cape. The cat was heading for a gap under the wire, a crossing place it had used before in its long nocturnal circuits in search of food.
Sometime earlier, a farmer had visited that same point on the fenceline. He’d carefully opened a steel leg-hold trap, set its trigger mechanism, and lodged it in the gap under the fence.
|Slow end: the carcass of a leopard killed by a gin-trap|
It can’t be said when exactly the young leopard’s right front paw hit the trigger plate, but in the morning farmworkers found the cat, still alive, in the centre of a semi-circle of turned-over earth and broken branches, evidence of an hours-long struggle, its paw firmly held, by a single fractured toe, in the trap’s vicious jaws.
This was a lucky leopard. The workers who found it were not employed by the trap-setting farmer, but by his neighbour. Within a few hours leopard conservationist Dr Bool Smuts had been alerted and, with the help of a veterinary team, sedated the animal, treated its foot, and released it.
Other leopards have not been so fortunate. Since late 2002 Smuts has documented 28 leopard deaths in the area he monitors between Uniondale and the Addo Elephant National Park. A full 24 of these, he says, have been due to leghold traps, otherwise known as gin-traps. Sometimes leopards stay pinioned in these traps until they starve; sometimes they chew off their own trapped paws in order to escape – and then starve.
The traps are not usually meant for leopard, which are a protected species. They are set for smaller predators like jackal or caracal lynx, which kill thousands of sheep annually, causing millions of rands in losses to farmers.
Gin-traps catch all kinds of “non-target” animals: antelope, hares, porcupines, large birds, even tortoises – anything big enough to trip the trigger. There are no reliable figures for how many creatures are caught annually, as the issue has not been seriously studied. However,
some researchers estimate that around 20 non-target animals are caught for each target animal. The use of gin-traps is neither illegal nor monitored; tens of thousands are in use, and over a thousand are produced monthly at a factory in Prince Albert in the Karoo.
Although farmers are legally obliged to check their traps every 24 hours, many don’t, and victims often take days to die. Smuts has found a leopard that died and rotted in a trap before anyone checked it (see photo.)
This, says Smuts, is not only cruelty on a grand scale but a significant conservation problem. Leopards are rare beasts in much of the country: a recent study estimated between 25 and 35 resident leopards in the 300,000 hectare protected area around Baviaanskloof in the Eastern Cape. This, Smuts thinks, may not be enough to sustain good genetic diversity. Although resident Baviaanskloof leopards are able to breed in relative peace, their offspring must move out to establish their own territories. “That’s when they get nailed”, says Smuts. With so many being killed, he thinks that leopard populations are being seriously ragmented. Genes from Baviaanskloof leopards, for example, no longer mingle with those of Swartberg leopards, and inbreeding is becoming the norm.
It’s not only conservationists who hate leghold traps: the four major supermarket groups, which between them sell most of the meat in the country, dislike them strongly too. Pick n Pay told noseweek they support a total ban on the possession and use of gin-traps. The Shoprite Group said they “will support any effort which curbs cruelty to any animal”. Woolworths says they are working with farmers and conservationists “to find a lasting solution to the use of gin-traps and other inhumane methods of managing predators”. Spar’s meat manager told noseweek that “you only have to see one picture of a leopard with its foot chewed off to know that these are barbaric devices”.
But despite these sentiments, gin-trap-free sheep farming is far from breaking out all over. Much has been said in recent years about promoting farming without gin-traps or other cruel and unselective methods of predator control – but very little has actually happened.
Petrus de Wet, head of the National Wool-Growers Association and a sheep farmer himself, told noseweek that gin-traps are the best way of killing the jackal that eat his sheep. He claims that a gin-trap set by an expert (such as himself) will seldom catch a non-target animal and will get the problem predator “within a few nights”. He avoids responding to questions on the inhumanity of the traps, preferring instead to talk about the suffering of the sheep. Sometimes single predators can go on a killing frenzy, wiping out dozens of sheep in a single night. “How humane is that?” he asks.
When one provides a ready supply of excellent food in the form of fenced-in sheep, one must expect to attract predators – there’s no wishing them away, De Wet says, and you have to deal with the meat-eaters when they arrive. He also believes that if gin-traps are banned farmers will carry on using them, as effective policing is impossible. Farmers will carry on trapping jackal, ban or no ban. And making a gruesomely-effective snare out of a few bits of fencing wire is something even a child can do.
Bool Smuts does not dispute that wild predators sometimes do cause severe losses to small-scale stock farmers, but insists that, nonetheless, leghold traps must be made illegal. “Do we allow paedophilia just because some people will carry on doing it no matter what the law says?” He also argues that all “lethal control” should be reconsidered.
The key idea here, backed by some researchers, is that killing large numbers of highly-adaptable predators, like jackal, simply pressurises those species to evolve into even more troublesome and numerous “problem animals”. Females which breed faster and younger are likely to have more offspring to survive a predator-control onslaught, so their genes become dominant in the population. Predators that become wary of humans and learn to evade traps will pass that behaviour on. Jackals that keep territories, and are thus predictable in their movements, will be easier to kill than those which stay on the move, thus territoriality will fade away, increasing the number of predators sharing a particular area.
The answer, according to Smuts, lies not in large-scale “lethal control” of predators, but in ensuring that small herds become less appealing targets. He says that farmers often don’t calculate the huge cost of “lethal control” – setting and checking traps takes time and petrol – and says that farmers who switch to non-lethal methods can and do save cash. He’s introduced sheep collars to farmers around the Baviaanskloof, which prevent predators from biting into sheep necks, and he encourages the use of shepherds and specially trained Anatolian sheepdogs to guard flocks. These methods are not perfect (jackal sometimes learn to kill sheep by “eating them out from behind” and sheepdogs don’t always behave as they’re trained to) but, says Smuts, they are effective.
The government has recently begun reviewing the norms and standards for Damage Causing Animal Control, and has engaged interested and affected parties in the process. It’s a complex problem because we, the public, demand braai-chops and woollen jerseys: sheep and the predators that eat them aren’t going away anytime soon.
But gin-traps are so obviously cruel that one would think that conservationists could persuade the state to ban them. However, they face a solid wall of opposition from various farmers’ groups and “problem animal” hunters. Acrimonious email exchanges and heated meetings have almost brought the process of revising the regulations to a grinding halt.
And despite their good words, the supermarkets have also contributed to the stalemate. As the main gateway between producers and consumers, they hold a good deal of power in the meat industry, but they’re actually doing very little to promote gin-trap-free farming with the excuse that the way the whole industry presently works makes it almost impossible to guarantee that meat on the shelves comes from specific areas or is produced to certain standards.
Conservationists, too, don’t always present a united front. Some are wary of alienating farmers who control conservation-worthy land, and often fluff the “emotive” gin-trap issue when they’re asked to take a position.
The public will soon be asked to comment on proposed changes to the norms and standards that would effectively outlaw gin-traps. Bool Smuts is hoping that if enough people make their voices heard supermarkets and farmers will be forced to acknowledge that their customers want to see the end of these cruel devices.
Gin-traps or no gin-traps? It’s up to you.
- The National Wool Growers Association can be contacted via www.nwga.co.za
- Bool Smuts and the Landmark Foundation’s leopard project staff can be contacted via www.landmarkfoundation.org.za
- Ask your local supermarket manager how to reach their head office with your views on gin-traps.
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