By Liz Komen
In Namibia domestic livestock often falls prey to predators. Historically the solution was to remove predators by using poison, which has resulted in ever-declining numbers of birds of prey. The Poison Working Group – Endangered Wildlife Trust initiates and implements plans for the safe and responsible use of poison.
In post-independent Namibia a cornerstone of much policy development is considering social, biophysical and economic environmental impacts. Public and private sectors are being tasked with re-evaluating methods and finding ways to secure biodiversity and sustainability of resources for future generations. But for our birds of prey, eagles, vultures, falcons and owls, the future has not yet been secured.
In Namibia 80% of the land that supports most of Namibia’s wildlife is zoned for agriculture. Farmers thus hold the key to the future of Namibia’s unique biodiversity, whilst retaining their personal and national responsibilities for productivity and profitability. Because of the arid nature of much of the country, domestic livestock production dominates in commercial and communal farming for both local and export markets. A significant and increasing percentage of agricultural land is used for tourism, usually through game farming. But, be it domestic livestock or game animals, the focus is on herbivores – from goats, sheep and cattle to springbok, kudu and eland. Farming with herbivores has, as with all other industries, positive and negative production factors. One negative factor for farm profitability is loss of livestock to predators and this, through the use of poison as a management tool for predator removal, has resulted in the death of many non-targeted wildlife, especially birds of prey.
Historically the accepted terminology for predators on farmlands – ‘vermin’ and ‘problem animal’ – was in line with a development versus nature attitude. This negative perception of predators, coupled with ignorance of the environmental implications of the irresponsible use of poison, supported the destruction of most predators roaming on farmlands. Not enough information is available to understand why some farmers suffer more stock mortalities from predation than others, nor does the available information give reliable figures as to what percentage of livestock mortalities is actually attributable to predators, as many predators are also opportunistic scavengers. However, data are available for the serious decline in population numbers of some wildlife species as a result of using poison as a method for predator removal on farms with livestock. Known declines have occurred in the populations of the tawny eagle, Aquila rapax, lappetfaced vulture, Torgos tracheliotus, Cape vulture, Gyps coprotheres, bateleur, Terathopius ecaudatus and kites, Milvus species.
In 2000, the Namibian poison awareness campaign began on a clear note, offering information on human safety through a manual entitled Safe and Responsible use of Pesticides. The next step brought the campaign closer to the most obvious symptoms of poison misuse – declining populations of large birds of prey. A thousand posters and booklets, covering 16 species of large predatory birds, eagles and vultures, were distributed. In light of the success of the Large Birds of Prey materials, and in order to address the widespread availability, lack of information and misuse of rodenticides (often used illegally to kill predators on farmlands), a second poster and booklet, Owls of Namibia, was produced. The response to these materials was exactly what had been hoped for; farmers and farmers’ associations initiated dialogue by asking for information through presentations at their workshops.
In 2003, commercial livestock farmers, in line with national development plans for Namibia’s Vision 2030, developed a code of ethics for environmental responsibility, biodiversity safety and sustainability. Nedbank Namibia’s Go Green Fund agreed to support the next logical step in the campaign for safe use of poisons. Twenty thousand booklets entitled Predators on Livestock Farms in Namibia were printed for free distribution to farmers. The booklet presents a general overview of veld, livestock and predator management factors that influence predator/livestock conflicts on farmlands. It emphasises increasing the protection offered to livestock and lists the pros and cons of all predator-removal techniques, including use of poison.
In Namibia there is a legal poison (strychnine) available on prescription to livestock farmers for lethal predator removal. Over decades strychnine has been implicated not only in declining wild bird-of-prey populations, but also in urban criminal activity where pet dogs are frequently victims. From 1997 to 2001, annual amounts of between 1 500–2 000 grams of strychnine were prescribed for killing predators. Four years into the campaign for co-operation on the safe use of poisons and with the assistance of the Veterinary Council of Namibia, these figures have declined dramatically. Only 95 grams were prescribed for predator removal between January 2004 and March 2005.
With a reduction of about 95% in strychnine use, the issue of birds of prey as non-target victims of poison use should have been resolved. However, besides legal poison (strychnine), a multitude of agrochemicals (pesticides) is also available. These highly toxic products can be bought without discussion or prescription and are available in supermarkets, corner cafés, garden shops and agricultural outlets. Although they are tested and labelled for specific use, many can be and are used illegally for lethal predator removal. With pesticide availability, entrenched development-versus-nature attitudes, a competitive chemical market, marketing strategies, advertising agencies and untrained sales personnel, the destruction of wildlife populations continues.
Farmers use agricultural retail outlets for advice and acquisition of necessary farm equipment and products. In January 2005, 30 agricultural-product retail outlets were surveyed throughout Namibia. The results of the survey revealed that sales personnel have poor environmental attitudes and limited knowledge of the implications of pesticides used illegally and off-label to kill predators.
In the telephonic survey, 25% of survey respondents immediately suggested the use of a pesticide to a fictitious farmer ‘suffering with a jackal problem’, no questions asked. The Poison Working Group–Namibia has proposed taking the campaign for the safe use of pesticides to sales personnel and others who influence end-users of pesticides. Five workshops aimed at furthering the campaign for co-operation on the safe use of poisons are planned for August 2005.
Worldwide, livestock-producing farmers deal with the pest issue of predators. There are many unanswered questions surrounding the issue, and one reality – as long as there are predators, there will be conflict with livestock. As with any conflict, dialogue must remain open and the issue must be kept visible. As information is gathered, knowledge must be shared whilst attitudes and value systems are reviewed at every level. New conflict resolutions will need to be relevant to a world that is now more than ever aware of the need to actively maintain its biodiversity.
This article appeared in the 2005/6 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.