Rare birds fall victim to poison and traps
[The Namibian – 16 Jan 2009]

For birds of prey 2009 has not brought relief from the weaponry used on farmlands for mammalian predator control. In the first week of the new year, NARREC (Namibia Animal Rehabilitation Research and Education Centre) received two of our large and rare raptor species, a poisoned White-backed Vulture and a leg-hold trapped Tawny Eagle. Both were non-target victims of careless application of predator management techniques.

The vulture arrived at NARREC paralysed with extreme muscle cramps, symptoms of strychnine poisoning. However, this bird was fortunate enough to have been found by a concerned Namibian farmer and rushed directly to NARREC. After 48 hours of intensive treatment she recovered well. Then, after a further week of therapy and rest the bird was ringed and tagged for identification and released.

The Tawny Eagle was however a lot less fortunate. A farmer had set a leg-hold trap (also known as a steel-jaw trap, foot-hold or gin-trap) to catch a leopard. The leg-hold trap is made up of two jaws, a spring of some sort, and a trigger in the middle. When the animal steps on the trigger the trap snaps closed around a foot or leg, preventing the animal from escaping. The leg bone of the trapped animal is often broken by the force of the traps’ steel jaws. A meat lure is used to attract animals to the trap or the trap is set along an animal trail. The Tawny Eagle was actually seen at the trap late in the afternoon but left until the following morning by which time, the sharp edges of its broken leg bones and the steel teeth of the trap had torn all the lateral tendons on its “knee” and severed all the veins and arteries of its trapped leg.

Tawny Eagles are large birds of prey. They have the distinction of finding food by regularly scavenging or pirating prey from other eagles as well as by predating on small prey items; they have rather small talons for an eagle and are no risk to any domestic livestock. It is the scavenging nature of the Tawny Eagles’ behavior that leads them, as non-selected victims, into the jaws of the farmers’ weaponry. As scavengers Tawny Eagles might be caught in badly placed leg-hold traps or become primary or secondary victims of poison-baited carcasses.

In the latter half of the 1980s Dr C. Brown, then the ornithologist at the Ministry of Environment and Tourism studied, with the use of radio telemetry, the Tawny Eagle population in the Khomas Hochland. Over the 5-year study period approximately 80% of the adult breeding eagles in the study group were killed through direct persecution or indirectly as non-target victims when farmers attempted to catch or poison mammalian predators. A quarter of a century later, these same non-selective techniques are killing ever diminishing large birds of prey populations.

Various types of traps and poisons have been used for predator control on livestock farms for many decades. Poisoning, snaring and leg-hold trapping are globally of the most contentious ways of controlling predators. The ethics of these methods are criticized for their serious negative effects on non-targeted mammals and birds, which occasionally includes dogs, cats, and endangered wildlife species. The methods are also criticized for the inherent cruelty as animals are usually badly maimed by the traps and often left to die slow and painful deaths.
In order to make lethal and non-lethal methods of predator control target specific there are numerous and fairly obvious ways of handling the equipment. However, some farmers seem to not be bothered with or to be ignorant of obvious and necessary actions that can be taken to minimize the cruelty aspects as well as to prevent the non-selective nature of trapping.

In the case of the latest Tawny Eagle leg-hold victim the farmer had left the trap with a farm assistant. This person it can be assumed although given lethal equipment has not been informed or did not use best practice methods. A scavenging bird looks for food by sight from above. A leopard uses its sense of smell. A trap of any sort or a poison-laced bait that is well hidden from aerial view will prevent birds from becoming non-target victims.

Steel jaw-traps were first described in western sources in the late 16th century. They were widely used for fur bearing animals in the early days of North American settlements. These traps do not kill, they hold the animal alive in steel jaws. The pain can be long and the slow death may involve hunger, cold, exhaustion and blood loss until the returning trapper ends it all. Because of the cruelty aspects and the known large number of non-targeted animals caught, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the World Veterinary Association, and the American Animal Hospital Association have declared leg-hold traps “inhumane”. The European Union (EU) banned the use of the “cruel and indiscriminate” steel-jaw leg-hold trap in 1995. EU regulations prohibit the use of these traps in the 15 member nations of the EU and prohibit the import of fur into the EU from those nations who had not prohibited use of leg-hold traps. As Namibia has a large beef export market to the EU we should be aware that the use of leg-hold traps may in the long term work to a national disadvantage. Worldwide the steel leg-hold is banned in over 88 countries.

Namibia as with many other jurisdictions around the world has enacted statutes, which forbid cruelty to animals. In Namibia the anti-cruelty laws relate to all animals however when certain predator control techniques are applied on farmlands cruelty is simply seen as a necessary practice. In Namibia leg-hold traps with appropriate names like “Terminator” and “Magnum” are available for both small and large animals. These traps are sold without warnings or description that could assist an ignorant farmer in minimizing the negative potentials of catching non-target animals and of cruelty aspects. Modified traps are manufactured to reduce potential animal injuries, but are not readily available in Namibia. The modified traps have thick smooth offset jaws that are padded. But, like any other trap they need to be intelligently placed for the target species and to be checked very regularly.

Throughout the world domestic livestock and game farm animals may be at risk of predation. The question remains as to whether any non-selective or cruel and contentious methods of predator control have a place in modern farming.

Liz Komen