We are Cheetah Friendly – Part II
“We are cheetah friendly”. The sign hangs on the gates of farms who participate in Cheetah Outreach’s Livestock Guardian Dog Program. In a land where commercial farming has encroached on wildlife for generations, certain NGOs and farmers are working together to create new ways of solving the problems of predation. Cheetah Outreach comes not from an ‘us or them’ perspective but rather ‘live and let live’.
Read Part One here: We are Cheetah Friendly – Part I
I’ve been accompanying Cyril Stannard, Anatolian Project Coordinator, on the road in South Africa’s NorthWest Province as he delivers Anatolian Shepherd puppies and checks on grown livestock guard dogs in the dusty southern tip of the Kalahari. It’s barely nine am and the heat is rising. Neels Grobelaar’s children are taking turns diving into the irrigation tank to keep cool. Neels see cheetah tracks from time to time but nothing substantial and is a very supportive participant in the LGD program, but he hasn’t had an easy time. When we arrived he had some bad news for Cyril, and with a heavy heart he tells us his dog and two cows were been killed by a black mamba, one of the deadliest snakes in Africa. Prior to this incident, he lost three other livestock guard dogs to various tragedy; one to a car accident, another young dog trampled in between quarreling cattle, and a third choked to death in an illegally set wire snare on a nearby farm.
No one is immune to the deep sadness of losing an animal, yet after all this tragedy Neels still believes in the program but he wants to take a break before taking on another dog. This is a difficult way to start our day and demonstrates that this solution is not a magic bullet. It requires perseverance, something Neels does not lack. Convincing farmers to take on this method isn’t as easy when some consider the immediacy of shooting a damage-causing animal over the time and commitment of a livestock guard dog. However, the results of a successful dog far exceed the random shoot-and-kill tactic of the past in terms of protecting farmers’ investments.
This won’t be the only loss we encounter. Since the Anatolian Shepherd’s job is to protect their flock from predators, they’re out in the wild around the clock and the stakes are high. We learn that another farmer’s dog was killed in a fight with a warthog. Despite this news, each farmer who has lost a dog requests another. They are not going to go back to the risks faced to their sheep, goats and cattle prior to owning a livestock guardian animal.
On a farm near the town of Brisbane, farm manager Johan van Heerden told of his guardian dog who fell prey to a black mamba.
Driving from farm to farm, the landscape is a blur of bush, fences, soft dusty earth and the occasional pickup truck or laborer on horseback. Cyril tells me the horse is making a return in recent years as the cost of petrol rises.
After hours on the road, something completely surreal breaks up the scenery, a high-rise building in the middle of nowhere. Even stranger is the town of Pomfret which lies just a few miles beyond this structure. At first glance Pomfret is a ghost town. Cliché’s like ‘eerie’ and ‘zombie movie set’ run through my head. There are spray-painted signs begging God for help, smashed windows and houses without roofs. There are no services, but there are people who live here. The tall building in the distance is an abandoned asbestos mine.*
Pomfret was created to mine asbestos but now it is the home of the remnants of the 32nd Battalion and their families. Known for the role they played in the 1992 shootings of civilians in the settlement of Phola Park, the unit was disbanded in 1993 and retired to Pomfret. Fighting on the wrong side of history these unemployed mercenaries and military live in a desperate state of poverty. As we drive through, the only human around is an elderly woman tending a field next to a rotting municipal building. There is a makeshift tent structure next the mine but we don’t drive close and frankly I’m OK with keeping our distance. The single road that leads to Gerbus van der Merwe’s farm runs through Pomfret.
The heaviness of Pomfret’s surroundings lighten once we arrive at the van der Merwe farm. Workers are preparing to bring cattle to auction when we arrive. He eagerly accepts the puppy and looks forward to the results as his son shyly sizes up this new addition.
Driving on, we are surrounded by game farms, some for hunting but not all. A constant feature in the landscape is the fences. They cannot be ignored, extending in every direction, electrified to keep the game in. Should a predator work its way through one of these game hunting fences they can be there for good. Most of the time there is no escape, however a group of four cheetah were said to have chased an antelope into a fence and knocked it down. Nothing is indestructible in Africa.
On this day two full grown bushbuck have escaped a private game farm. Their tracks are all over the road, fenced in by being fenced out from all sides as there is another privately owned farm across the way with their own electrified barriers. We pass a truck driving on the inside of the fence with laborers standing in the back searching for the runaway game.
Bushbuck have been known to run themselves to death and on this road there is no alternative. There is nowhere to go. The farm workers will shoot them or they will run, and continue running down the sandy kalahari road, fences on either side. Unless by some merciful fortune they make their way through a non-electrified fence miles away they are the running dead.
After another farm visit to deliver food to the dogs we drive back down the same stretch. The two panicked bushbuck bound past us, running furiously in the opposite direction.
I ask Cyril if owners could agree to create co-operatives and tear down the fences. Wouldn’t it mean more game, easier on predation and loss, and possibly bring in more money? (cue outsider’s ‘aha I have the answer’ speculations) He informs me it isn’t such an easy answer. The culture of farming is very individualistic and one that doesn’t take to outside ‘advice’ so easily. The ideas have to come from within and would mean a lot of complex agreements between neighbors. The same goes for livestock guardian dogs. Communities respond by seeing results from their neighbors, family and friends.
The last puppy delivered proves his breeding right before our eyes. Trembling and scared, he meets his flock of sheep who are far less frightened than him. He tries to run but curiosity wins out over fear. After a few attempts to get him comfortable the farmer decides to give him a break and place him outside the enclosure. We turn our around and walk back to the farmhouse. Cyril looks back one last time and watches as the puppy discovers a tiny hole in the fence and rejoins the sheep. He’s found his family, and he’ll protect them for life.
*Authors note: Wikipedia has a sentence about the mine outside Pomfret being a tourist attraction. It is not a tourist attraction and I would advise readers to keep far from it.
You can read the entire post plus more images on National Geographic News Watch