Hunt for Sylvester suffers double blow

29 June 2015 - 02:04 By Shaun Smillie

The hunt for an escaped Western Cape lion has become harder since searchers lost critical capabilities such as the use of a helicopter and dogs trained to track big cats. Yesterday morning helicopter pilot Ben Potgieter waited at Palmietfontein Farm, on the border of Western and Northern Cape, 90km north of Beaufort West, as trackers followed the spoor of the three-year-old lion, nicknamed Sylvester.This was Potgieter's last day on the job and he was paying for it out of his pocket.The loss of Potgieter's helicopter was the second blow to the team that has been hunting the lion for three weeks. It escaped from the Karoo National Park.On Saturday the pack of hunting dogs and their handlers returned to Botswana.Potgieter felt the dogs and the helicopter gave the searchers their best chance of darting the lion with a sedative.The plan, he explained, was for the dogs to follow the scent of the lion then use the helicopter to flush it from hiding. The dogs have GPS tracking devices on their collars.Once the lion was on the move, Potgieter would fly at tree-top height to within 15m of the animal, allowing his passenger, a vet, to fire his dart gun.Potgieter said that on Friday they nearly had Sylvester.The dogs were on the scent, and they were close. But then Sylvester crossed into another farm and the search team could not get access.With no dogs and a 36km/h wind that makes flying dangerous, all Potgieter could do yesterday was wait.In the distance, the trackers were following the lion up the jagged Nuweveld mountain range, as he headed again for the Northern Cape boundary."This is a team effort; you can't do a lion trace without a helicopter and dogs," Potgieter said.This is the second time Sylvester has passed through Palmietfontein. On his last visit he killed 14 sheep.When the lion crosses into Northern Cape, at the top of the mountain range, a team of trackers from that province's conservation authority will take over.The takeover, said Potgieter, takes time and there are problems with communication.SANParks spokesman Ray Thakuli said that the loss of the helicopter and the dogs was a small setback, but SANParks wasworking hand-in-hand with other conservation authorities to bring the lion back to the Karoo National Park in Western Cape.In the meantime, with Sylvester once again near Palmietfontein, the farm's owner, Eltrus Mocke, will once more have to head out and check if the big cat has taken any of his livestock.His farmworkers, however, will not be venturing into the veld.Huibrie Griffiths has not been out looking for firewood for a month because of the lion.

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