This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic Voices blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.
Photos by iLCP Fellow Denis Palanque, and Nathalie Houdin. Text by Marine Drouilly and Kai Fitchen.
At the heart of the Karoo Predator Project: helping science through photography to mitigate human-wildlife conflict
After more than a year of planning, countless discussions and an exhausting twenty-three hour flight, two intrepid photographers, Denis Palanque and Nathalie Houdin, heaved the last 60kg case full of custom made photographic equipment onto African soil. This was the initial phase of their photographic project, which would take them to a unique and dusty wilderness. A wilderness filled with unexplored mountains, canyons and century-old farms. Their aim was to report on the Karoo Predator Project, which is researching predators’ behaviour and movement ecology on South African Karoo farmlands to mitigate conflicts with farmers.
The Project is exceptional as it involves a multidisciplinary team of researchers together with farmers and local NGOs. In this harsh semi-desert region, sheep farming has come to be the only economic activity. Marine Drouilly, a French PhD student and field manager of the Project, has walked the Karoo flat for the past two-and-a-half years. She has set-up a legion of camera-traps to assess biodiversity, collected hundreds of scats to analyse predators’ diet, and fitted state-of-the-art GPS collars on captured predators. This project has even surpassed just science where she has been on a quest to interview as many farmers as possible about this very controversial topic.
The two disorientated photographers were just catching their breath when they received a call from Marine announcing that a caracal had just been captured. With only three hours of sleep over forty-eight hours, they now needed to pile 200 kgs of equipment into their rental and drive 450 km North-East of Cape Town. There, on a rather-green and hilly farm, the two photographers met Marine, Kai Fitchen (the Project’s field assistant from Cape Town) and their first caracal: Ginger, a young female who had just been trapped in a cage by a farmer. Immense green eyes, long black ears fringed by delicate tufts, and robust paws. The medium-sized feline had the makings of an efficient predator. “They are a bit like cougars in miniature”, said Marine.
Usually, farmers kill caracals and black-backed jackals – another nocturnal and elusive carnivore of the region – because they are potential threats to their sheep. Many farmers use cages, foothold traps, night and helicopter hunting, and poisons. Nobody has quantified the impacts of those lethal methods on biodiversity and it is also one of the aims of the Karoo Predator Project. A recent study showed that bat-eared fox, aardwolf, Cape fox, Cape porcupine and scrub hare are the most commonly trapped species. “It is not nice to find a dead predator in a cage or in a gin-trap. Sometimes, you even find non-target species. Many questions come to mind then: how long had this animal been fighting to get free? When did its panic give way to exhaustion? How long did it take to die?” explained Marine. While there are some farmers who are guilty of these actions there are also some who regard themselves as caring custodians of biodiversity on their land and seek to maintain a balance between the demands of small livestock farming and predator management.
One of the caracals Marine collared – a large and healthy male named Moonshine, had died in a cage owned by a very neglectful farmer. It has been a real battle for Marine to shift the way farmers deal with the predator issue. Nevertheless, the dynamic golden-hair French scientist (aka Goldilocks) has managed to gain the farmers’ trust and convinced them to equip predators with GPS collars rather than killing them. These collars are invaluable for the Project by allowing the team to track the predators’ movement and behaviour.
Ginger was collared and released back onto the farm and quickly disappeared into a narrow vegetated canyon. It was a big ask for the farmers to be part of the Project as they are taking a real risk for their sheep that roam free on vast areas with no protection. For the farmers, finding a lamb that has been partially eaten justifies their action to get rid of the predators. Annually, these farmers will lose up to 50% of their livestock, which is crippling the industry.
Factually unsupported generalizations by some NGOs that portray farmers as heedless destroyers of biodiversity in addition to farmers who feed the public perception of excessive and indiscriminate predator removal have polarized the farmer/conservation dialogue and hampered erstwhile attempts to derive sustainable and humane solutions to the problem of predator losses. This is why Nathalie and Denis’ work is so important. There is no good and evil but rather shades of grey, no easy solution but a huge need for communication and tolerance. Some farmers have made big compromises to live with predators and encourage biodiversity on their farms while others spread poison everywhere. Some predators only eat natural prey while others specialize on sheep no matter how many hares and mice there are around. The photographers also want to encounter some rarely photographed Karoo wildlife like bat-eared foxes, aardwolves and aardvarks. To do so, they spent most of their nights under the Karoo stars waiting for animals to pass in front of their camera-traps; they learned to track predators’ spoors with Marine and Kai, and talked to many farmers to understand both sides of the story. Despite the blistering sunburns, insect bites, lack of sleep and barely palatable canned food, Nathalie and Denis work relentlessly to bring awareness to the Karoo Predator Project.
Nathalie and Denis are committed to wildlife conservation and wish to use their skills to defend the future of wildlife on the planet. Their voyage in the scorched land of the Karoo has revealed that the farmer-predator conflict is a complex topic and that to conserve wildlife, one must work with local people first, and gain their trust. Their project is a challenge but they hope that Marine’s work, along with their photography report can help initiate a sustainable co-existence between farmers and predators in the region. In April 2015, Nathalie and Denis will be returning to South Africa to complete their photographic project where they’ll definitely get thrown into some more heart-stirring adventures with Goldilocks and her sharp-toothed friends.
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We would like to express our gratitude to our partners for their assistance and support without which this project would not have succeeded. Canon France & Europe, PNY Technologies, Peli Products and Aguila Voyages Photo.