Bullets to save bait: conservation takes aim at wetland poachers
The chief ranger at De Mond estuary in the Western Cape will go to great lengths to protect its precious wildlife, writes Chris Bateman
Agap in the clouds exposes a fleeting crescent moon, which streaks a brief silver shimmer across the pristine De Mond estuary waters, silhouetting two people toiling in the shallow sand flats.
They're pumping blood-worm for bait - illegally as it turns out because nobody is supposed to be about in this remote Cape Nature coastal conservancy from 6pm to 7am.
The two poachers and their silvery prawn pumps are suddenly lit up by a spotlight from the crest of a nearby sand dune.Two warning shots from a rifle and the men drop everything and sprint clumsily for shore in ankle-deep water, tearing off their heavy plastic waders before fleeing down the boardwalk along the estuary's shore.
The narrow footbridge over the Heuningsnes River opposite the car park plays a staccato drum beat, interspersed by panting gasps as the poachers head for a gap in the reserve's fence, find their vehicle and drive off in a cloud of dust and panic.WELCOME TO THE SANCTUARY
De Mond - between Struisbaai and Arniston - is one of 18 Ramsar Wetland Conservation areas in South Africa. It's also one of the few southwestern Cape coastal spots where highly sought-after bloodworm and pencil bait are still found in relative abundance.
However, even here, commercial poachers have devastated the local populations. So, in 2014, after a year in the hot seat, chief ranger Thulani Ndlovu (whose predecessor's car tyres were slashed by poachers), decided it was time to draw a line in the sand.
"It was totally out of hand," he said. " I'd go so far as to say stopping illegal bait collection was the reason for my existence,'' he grins from behind his desk in his prefabricated office among milkwoods and fynbos.Staff morale had reached an all-time low and well-known nearby Bredasdorp anglers were treating the estuary as their personal fiefdom.
Yet this man, whose Zulu name translates as "the silent elephant", had had enough.
His literal shot across the bows got some push-back, though. The outraged bait collectors laid a charge of attempted murder against him.
Ndlovu had to explain his actions in detail to the Bredasdorp prosecutor who thought long and hard before declining to proceed.
Ndlovu had notched up a small victory. Word got out among poachers and entitled local anglers, who backed down for several months.
Today, when it's late-evening high tide, Ndlovu goes easily to his bed. However, if it's low tide and near the weekend, he can expect problems.
"People come from Cape Town. They want fresh bait for the weekend and know who to phone in advance - and they're prepared to pay."
He knows most repeat offenders, some of whom he's banned from the estuary, where no bait collection is allowed at any time.
If he or his staff approach an angler, you can bet they've been watching his behaviour through their telescope for a while.
They know exactly where the undersize steenbras or grunter are buried, or where the illegal bait is stashed.
Protestations of innocence, accompanied by a valid angling or bait collection licence come to nought.THE COTTAGE BY THE SEA
My family's sojourn at De Mond, which I rate as the most beautiful wetland I've yet encountered, was over four days at the beginning of April.
We stayed at the well-equipped and comfortable three-bedroomed Cape Nature Conservation cottage, which is tucked away in the dunes.
With a rainwater tank and borehole water on tap, fridge, freezer, stove, towels and bed linen provided, plus a newly constructed large braai lapa outside, we wanted for nothing but firewood, food and alcoholic libation.
My longtime trout-fishing companion, Dorrien Tissiman, completed the crew.
A series of weak cold fronts played havoc with the fishing, though Dorrien snaffled a handful of small leervis, and a just-on-size feisty cob gave me palpitations when it ran me into an overwind in a deep, narrow hole minutes before full high tide one evening. I ended up double hand-lining it in.
In addition to the abundant leervis and elusive grunter, the estuary is home to the endangered Damara tern, whose only other known breeding ground is near Walvis Bay.
This year, four breeding pairs were spotted by twitchers.
The Caspian tern is another endangered species found here, along with oystercatchers and a host of other sea birds.It's also a rare and precious piscatorial breeding ground, whose protection is vital to maintaining our seagoing inshore populations.
The estuarine system itself is a thing of rare beauty, snaking for several kilometres from the reserve entrance to the waves pounding at the open mouth.
Most striking is the web of succulent, jewel-like shallow-water plants that stretch for hectares, looking very much like multi-coloured coral.
As with many estuaries on our coastline, there is a perennial debate on whether the mouth should be artificially closed or opened.
The natural salt marsh usually sprawls across 800ha but up to 30,000ha of valuable farmland is at risk from salt-water flooding if the mouth stays closed too long.
The agricultural flood risk birthed the conservancy in 1939. Concerned farmers whose properties bordered on the salt marsh approached the Department of Forestry, which agreed to appropriate portions of the Kilpin, Finlay and Albertyn families' lands for purposes of "forestry".
Now managed by the Heuningsnes Estuary Forum, consisting of Cape Nature, farmers, and the Department of Water Affairs, the estuary was artificially - and controversially - bulldozed open in 2007, with bags more money subsequently thrown at dune stabilisation.Ndlovu cites a natural closure in 1974, which a freak storm soon re-opened.
In 2011, all dune stabilisation was stopped after more expense and environmental/scientific consultation.
"Now we're at the point that we'll allow the sand dunes to block the mouth, but at a certain threshold we'll open it - we're still debating that,'' said Ndlovu.
Ndlovu is phlegmatic and espouses an earthy point of view; "Nature is older than us. We panic after 25 or 60 years, but nature is patient and knows. It can take centuries to reverse something."
Unlike the brief conservation respite a couple of rifle rounds can buy.WHAT IS DE MOND?
The estuary at De Mond is fed by the Soetendals Vlei - named after the Dutch East India ship Zoetendal, which wrecked on the nearby coast in 1673 - and Nuwejaars and Kars rivers, and faces different challenges to its larger nearby cousin at De Hoop.
There the surrounding land is non-agricultural and De Hoop's basin is far bigger, allowing natural flooding. The 954ha reserve was proclaimed in 1986.