Vat hom, Fluffy
In defence mode, alpacas spit, kick, regurgitate, squeal and bray like donkeys - enough to scare the spots off any predator
South African predators, often treated as nothing more than vermin, have borne the brunt of livestock farmers' wrath for centuries. But that could all change now that farmers stand to reap massive benefits from a wave of lateral thinking sweeping the agricultural community.
"Ongedierte bestuur (vermin control) has obsessed the agricultural industry for the last 350 years," says Bool Smuts, director of the Landmark Foundation, a conservation NGO that is looking for ways to resolve the conflict between man and predator in the Eastern Cape. "But this approach doesn't work. It's been extremely successful at getting rid of the top predators - your lion, hyena and so on - but very unsuccessful with your classic secondary predators such as jackal and caracal, which are naturally adapted to persecution. The more you go after them, the more they'll up their numbers, so we need to get proactive rather than reactive."
Smuts's solution? Using the alpaca, a highly territorial camelid from the Andes that looks like a startling experiment between a poodle and a camel. The alpaca rather resembles its cousin, the llama - only alpacas were originally domesticated for their sought-after fleece and are smaller than llamas, whereas llamas have been harnessed as beasts of burden since pre-Hispanic times.
Local farmers have employed animals driven by group instinct - such as hand-reared baboons and black wildebeest - to keep watch over livestock before, although not without censure from conservationists opposed to plucking species from the wild. Alpacas, however, have been domesticated for centuries. And now they are being punted as the perfect sentinels.
"The use of alpacas as guard animals has been well established in North America and Australasia. They spit and they kick - it's very dramatic - and they act quite intimidatingly towards any intruders that approach their herd," says Smuts, "their herd" being any livestock with which alpacas are placed.
When suspicious, an alpaca will also bring up its stomach contents, squeal like a stuck pig and bray like a donkey - imagine the look on a caracal's face when confronted with that onslaught at a midnight kraal. Initially expensive at R7000 a guard animal, alpacas are, in fact, low-maintenance beasts that eat the same feed that sustains their adoptive herd and, says Smuts, more than prove their weight in gold during lives that span up to 18 years.
They even pay for themselves by yielding more wool than merino sheep - and luxurious fleece at that. They may be exotic animals, but they seem like such an obvious solution to a complex problem that, at the end of January, the Landmark Foundation and Wits University's zoology department will launch the country's first scientific trials to study alpacas' efficacy as guard animals.
"One farmer suffered 450 stock losses a year, but then he introduced alpacas and this brought his losses down to 150 animals," says Smuts. "This encouraged us to do our own trials. Over the next four lambing seasons we'll place 10 alpacas in the area between Beaufort West, Molteno, Middelburg and Jansenville. We'll evaluate their impact on biodiversity and livestock production, as well as their financial returns."
Alpacas were first brought to South Africa in 2000 for their fleece. At the same time, Graaff-Reinet farmer Sally Kingwell found herself in Australia. "I was looking for a solution to vermin on the farm and was told that alpacas had been used successfully in Australia as guard animals for 15 years. I got hold of some when I returned to SA that same year and started leasing them to farmers."
Today, about 100 alpacas are being used as guard animals on farms in the Eastern Cape, where they seem particularly effective against two of the province's dominant predators - jackal and caracal.
According to Kingwell, alpacas are now beginning to police farms in other parts of the country, too.
"They can stand quite firm and their sheer size is enough to frighten a jackal coming up to the fence. The biggest losses occur in the young stock, the lambs, but some farmers using alpacas have reported a 90% increase in their weaning rate," says Kingwell, who has become one of the Eastern Cape's most established alpaca breeders.
"Demand for alpacas has outstripped supply, because vermin on our farms are increasing and we don't know why."
Alpacas, says Smuts, are just one answer to an old struggle. But they provide a solution to a conflict that turned the country's ecological balance on its head when desperate farmers shot out the predators, such as lion and leopard, that once maintained nature's balance.
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A shield for farmers
The alpaca, a South American camelid, is just the latest in a line of solutions employed by SA farmers to protect their livestock. The Endangered Wildlife Trust's Lifestock Guarding dog project (0114861102) has placed Anatolian shepherd dogs, and more recently African Maluti dogs, on farms across Limpopo since 2005. The project has been so successful that it has rendered "at least" a million hectares of Limpopo farmland predator-friendly. Elsewhere, the recently launched Predator Protection Plan has set up a fund to compensate farmers who have lost livestock to leopards (www.predatorprotectionplan.co.za).
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