Clean kills in rabbit cull on Robben Island

“It’s a clean, fast kill,” says marksman Abelines Schoeman, as his spotlight searches in the darkness for the telltale red glint that betrays a rabbit’s eye.

He stops his quad bike, levels the .22 rifle that has both silencer and telescopic sights, and there is a muffled crack.

The beam of light shows a brief flurry of brown and white fur in the scrub, then stillness.

Schoeman walks rapidly over to the rabbit. It is indeed a clean kill: a bullet through the skull.

But to make certain, he delivers a sharp blow to the back of the neck with a heavy stick, before dropping the warm corpse into a red plastic crate strapped to the back of the bike.

The rabbit is one of about 6 700 that have been shot in a four-month culling programme on Robben Island, where the creatures were introduced by early sailors to breed as a source of meat.

Environmental disaster
They, together with a burgeoning population of fallow deer—also alien to South Africa—have devastated the 475-hectare island’s natural vegetation, leaving it with a covering of invasive aliens such as rooikrans and scrub that even starving rabbits find unpalatable.

Announcing the programme last year, Robben Island Museum acting CEO Jatti Bredekamp said the island, a world heritage site, was heading for “environmental disaster”.

The programme ended officially at the end of January, but contracted project leader, environmentalist John Kieser, and marksmen including Schoeman, were still on the island this week and still shooting.

Kieser said that over the four months his team had shot 220 fallow deer, leaving 30 which are to be relocated to a sanctuary in the Free State.

Of the island’s feral cats, which prey on the chicks of penguins and rare bird species, 46 had been killed, leaving five to be dealt with.

“The cats are very smart,” he said. “They don’t look at the light. You just see a form, and you have to hunt that form.”

Though his team had been asked to shoot out the guinea-fowl on the island, he had asked that a study first be done to confirm the birds were indeed an environmental problem.

Western Cape conservation authorities had in any case said they would be happy with the birds being moved off the island to farming, as opposed to wilderness, areas in the province.

Head shots
As for the rabbits, Kieser said, he estimated that with 6 700 down, there were still another 10 000 to go.

It would be “pretty easy” to shoot 400 rabbits a night—they are essentially nocturnal creatures.

“But it’s how you shoot them,” he explained. “You go for head shots because it’s humane and they’re immediately dead. That reduces it to 120 a night.

“I didn’t go into conservation to ... maim animals.”

The shooting starts after the last tourists have left for the day, for safety reasons as much as to avoid exposing visitors to the sight of killing.

The corpses are taken to a temporary abattoir set up in a former kitchen on the island, where workers skin them, rather like peeling off a glove, and gut them before they are vacuum-packed and frozen.

James Makola, heritage manager for the museum, said that depending on grade, the meat would go to restaurants, welfare organisations and a cheetah sanctuary.

He said the museum was finalising a contract that would take the culling programme through to March 31, the end of the financial year.

There would be a budget for it to continue in the new year.

But, he said, the museum had applied for additional funding from the Department of Arts and Culture for a “long-term plan”.

“Currently we are awaiting a response from them,” he said.

The museum’s proposal to the department included employment of a permanent field ranger to control problem mammals, with a specific focus on rabbits.

Makola said the current intention was to cull all the rabbits, but he could not rule out that at some point in the future, the museum would be happy just to live with a more controllable number.

‘My goodness, they breed’
Kieser, who has experience of culling cats on Marion Island and rabbits on Algoa Bay’s Bird Island, said he expected it would take “at least ten years” to eliminate all the rabbits on the island.

“There’s a lot of rabbits out there ... and they do breed. My goodness, they breed!”

It was vital that the culling continue, he said.

If the programme lost momentum, the rabbit population would explode again, as it had after a previous culling programme was discontinued, he said.

In the meantime, he and his team say they are beginning to see the difference the culling of the rabbit and deer has made.

“There’s already signs: I’m seeing grasses that I never saw when I came here,” said marksman Chris Wilke.

“There’s one big melkbos tree that always used to get chowed up [by the deer],” said Kieser. “And now it’s looking so good. Those are the type of trees we’d like to have on the island.”

He has witnessed one even more gratifying change.

In past years, he said, animals on the crowded island had starved to death in the hot, dry Cape summer as food ran out.

“Usually when you came to the island at this time of year you would smell death, dead animals everywhere,” he said.

“This year not, because we’ve reduced them sufficiently. So the island is definitely starting to look better. But we need to keep the pressure on. If we don’t keep the pressure on, it will return to its former state.” - Sapa



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