The unintended oversight of leaving your dog’s unfinished breakfast on the porch could lead to the injury, or even death, of a wild animal. Far-fetched? Not according to the Centre for Rehabilitation of Wildlife (Crow) chairperson Helena Fitchat.
Fitchat tells the story of a Jack Russell on KwaZulu-Natal’s north coast who decided she had eaten her fill of cubes. A hungry banded mongoose snuck into the yard and decided he would tuck in. Jack Russell noticed and attacked, defending his stash like any dog would. Result: one dead mongoose.
According to Fitchat, this is not an uncommon story. Wild animals are losing their habitat to encroaching urban development and abandoning their natural shyness in search of food. And along with human urbanisation encroaching on wildlife habitats come the people’s pets. Domestic cat attacks on birds are among the main contributors to Crow’s intake.
Crow, which neighbours on Durban’s Stainbank nature reserve, rehabilitates wild animals injured in such circumstances and returns them to their natural habitat. The centre also releases orphaned and displaced animals.
Birds, monkeys and tortoises are the largest contributors to the 4 000 animals admitted annually. There is a particular problem with cars hitting owls at night. These nocturnal raptors are blinded by headlights and have no idea how to avoid them.
Many animals, such as monkeys and mongooses, are poisoned because they are considered a nuisance by suburbanites. Even the ubiquitous, harmless Egyptian geese are poisoned because ‘they mess”, says Fitchat.
She says pellet-gun wounds are common, too, since the requirement that users must licence these guns was recently abolished.
She puts much of the blame for the human-wildlife conflict in greater Durban on society’s seemingly insatiable appetite for coastal development.
‘Everyone wants a sea view and much of this land is covered by bush with a huge carrying capacity for wildlife. On the KwaZulu-Natal north coast, blue duikers are coming out by the sack-full,” Fitchat says.
Crow is the largest wildlife release centre in KwaZulu-Natal and the only one that caters for all indigenous wild animals.
‘The mortality rate is quite high, with half the animals either dead on arrival or so injured that they need to be euthanised,” she says. This is particularly true of birds, most of whom are caught by cats and very badly mauled.
Crow operates as a wildlife release organisation and is not a sanctuary for animals. In other words, it does not keep animals on a long-term basis that cannot be re-introduced into the wilds.
Fitchat says animals taken in by Crow are rehabilitated according to the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council guidelines.
Staff evaluate the animals before making a decision on releasing them. As a rule of thumb, Crow does not believe in keeping wild animals in cages on a permanent basis but exceptions are sometimes made. Occasionally animals unfit for release have been sent to dedicated wildlife sanctuaries to live out the rest of their lives.
Fitchat says there is a fine line between a zoo and a sanctuary. The main difference is that zoos trade wild animals while sanctuaries are non-profit organisations, allowing animals that cannot be released to live out the rest of their lives in captivity.
Euthanasia is the last resort at Crow, but circumstances dictate that this option is far from uncommon. Fitchat tells of the heartbreak she experiences every time a decision has to be made whether to rehabilitate or euthanise an animal.
‘It is an awful decision to have to make, to say this animal should be saved rather than that one because we can afford to save this one but not that one,” she says.
When deciding whether or not an animal is ready to be released, the animal is first given a full medical examination, including a check to see if it is parasite-free. ‘An antelope will be checked to see if it is physically fit enough to defend itself and a raptor will be checked to see if it can catch prey,” Fitchat says. Overweight and unfit birds of prey battle to hunt and often their shoulders can snap when they dive.
An expert on a particular species will also be called in to check if the animal is a hybrid as these are not released. A discussion is held to ascertain if the species occurs in the release area and to gauge its chances of finding a breeding partner in the area.
The optimal time of year for release is spring-summer because food is more plentiful, the weather kinder and it is the breeding season of most species, so chances of finding a mating partner are higher.
‘The most frequent release sites are privately owned game ranches. They have to fulfil the criteria of having the right habitat, secure fencing, an anti-poaching plan and a game management plan, if at all possible,” she says.
Crow tries to build up a relationship with the landowner and monitor the progress of the released animal as far as possible. Animals are tagged or implanted with microchips. Satellite tracking is ideal but extremely expensive, so it is not really an option. Occasionally the centre has linked up with satellite-enabled research programmes to monitor the release of its animals.
After they have been released, many animals are initially provided with support feeding. Often large fenced-off enclosures are provided. Hacking cages for birds - where they are free to come and go - provide psychological security before they are confident enough to completely go out on their own.
Crow has a particularly good relationship with the Milimani Game Sanctuary in northern KwaZulu-Natal. ‘They are very good to us, building raptor cages and financing our petrol,” Fitchat says.
She says it has become fashionable for housing estates to stock wild animals and many requests are received from them, but usually this is not an option as the estates don’t have sustainable game management plans. ‘People find the animals endearing at first, but when they breed up they become territorial and often a threat.”
Other problems in housing complexes include animals being hit by cars, being shot at with pellet guns and the fact that the habitat is often too small for them.
Of the 4 000 annual admittances to Crow, about half survive initially and about 70% of those survive on a longer-term basis. The centre releases approximately 1 000 animals a year.
‘Of those 1 000 released animals, about 70-80% of mammals survive and about 70% of birds but probably less than 50% of raptors survive. The raptors are particularly difficult and expensive to monitor,” she says.
Access to more money would increase that success rate. Fitchat describes Crow’s financial situation as ‘totally broke”. A full-time fundraiser / public relations officer has recently been hired to attempt to secure more donations from corporations.
Fitchat says the centre’s veterinary bill alone is R100 000 a year, despite a 33% discount and drugs at cost, and monthly running costs are R80 000. A sustainable investment is set aside to cover the salaries of ‘16 very dedicated” staff, but ‘unfortunately” not the rest of the monthly running costs.
Crow relies totally on private donations and these have been decreasing because of pressing human needs in South Africa. Cash for necessary capital expenditure is particularly short and cages need to be upgraded. A vehicle crisis last year was averted at the last minute when Unilever donated a truck, Fitchat says.
However, unlike many not-for-profit organisations, Crow does have some security of tenure - a 20-year lease was recently re-negotiated with the eThekwini municipality at nominal rent. The centre offers a 24-hour 365-day-a-year service.
Fitchat is realistic but not daunted by the challenges: ‘Wildlife rehabilitation does work, but we still have a lot to learn and the process is very expensive.”