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Dog hunters target small game in Cape reserves

Cape Nature has warned of a rise in the use of dogs for poaching, especially along the West Coast.

One of the greyhounds confiscated from suspected dog hunters in July, which is being cared for at the Cape of Good Hope SPCA. Picture: Aletta Harrison/EWN

CAPE TOWN - Hunters using packs of dogs for poaching are decimating small game populations, conservation body Cape Nature has warned.

It adds that the practice - also knowns as 'taxi hunting' in reference to the method of transporting the dogs - has markedly increased over the last year, particularly along the West Coast.

But according to Conservation Services Officer Leandi Wessels it is not survival or sustenance that is driving the activity, it is a blood sport with a gambling element.

"Participants bet on anything, from whose dog and which dog will make the first kill, to which species of animal will be brought down first," Wessels explains.

Consequently all animals - including vulnerable or protected species - become targets.

"Poaching with dogs is a destructive and indiscriminate hunting method and any animal that moves is chased down and attacked, including livestock," she adds.

The City of Cape Town, which is responsible for running several smaller reserves, says the drop in the number of certain species at its reserves has not gone unnoticed.

"The marked decrease or even absence of particular animals at some sites are evidence of the impact of this illegal activity. For example, Cape grysbok has almost become locally extinct at the Mitchell's Plain Hospital conservation area," says Mayoral Committee Member for Energy, Environmental and Spatial Planning, Johan van der Merwe.

While culprits face up to two years' imprisonment and a R80,000 fine per charge, Cape Nature and the SPCA say it is rare for successful convictions to result in such harsh penalties.

The City of Cape Town says a successful prosecution in 2012 resulted in a R10,000 fine and associated costs. But in other instances suspects have been released due to a lack of evidence.

SPCA Wildlife Inspector Shaun Giles says it can be tricky to secure a successful conviction, since culprits essentially have to be caught red-handed.

"A lot of times they're caught just on the farms with the dogs (and) although the intent is to hunt with them, they can only really be nailed with the trespassing side of things as they haven't really indulged in that act," he explains.

But on 10 July 2016, Giles was part of a team who responded to a tip-off, leading to the arrest of six men near Melkbosstrand.

On this occasion the authorities found the carcass of a porcupine and cape fox in their possession, as well as nine greyhounds in the back of their bakkie.

The carcasses of a porcupine and a cape fox were found in the possession of six men arrested in July 2016 near Melkbosstrand. Picture: Cape Nature

The SPCA and Cape Nature are now hoping the suspects do not get away with a slap on the wrist and have brought a number of charges from hunting without permits to animal cruelty, in the hope of securing a maximum penalty to deter others.

Giles says the practice is cruel not only towards the prey, but to the dogs too, who are frequently injured during hunts in which they are pushed beyond their limits.

He says training methods can include starving the animals and hunters sometimes administer drugs to the animals if they get worn down.

The animals that were confiscated from the suspected hunters are currently being cared for at the SPCA until the legal process runs its course or a magistrate strips the men of ownership.

One of the dogs that was confiscated from suspected hunters in July had a litter of puppies while in the care of the Cape of Good Hope SPCA. Picture: Aletta Harrison/EWN

While rangers do keep an eye out for trespassers in protected areas, the City admits it is extremely difficult to police because perpetrators hunt at all times of the day and all weather conditions. Protected spaces are also frequently unfenced and consequently it is almost impossible to control access.

Wessels says law enforcement is working with community policing forums and neighbourhood watches to compile a focused anti-poaching plan for the West Coast area.

But both Cape Nature and the City have highlighted the importance of tip-offs from vigilant members of the public to help combat the scourge.

*Six men are due to appear in the Atlantis Magistrates' Court on 30 September