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Back to the wild for laboratory baboons

Thirty wild baboons trapped for laboratory experiments have been confiscated by Northern Province conservation officials and released on a game reserve, signalling a progressive new approach to dealing with “problem” wild animals.

Baboons, with vervet monkeys, caracals, jackals and bushpigs, are officially classified in some provinces as pests. This means they may be shot on sight, and in some instances the law compels farmers to exterminate them.

The 30 baboons, still technically classified as “problem” animals in Northern Province, were released back into the wild at the provincial Letaba Ranch reserve, bordering on the Kruger National Park. They were confiscated from Eric Venter, a trapper based near Vaalwater who supplies South African and international laboratories, in a poor condition in July 1999.

They spent the past 16 months in a large corral at the Centre for Rehabilitation and Education (Care) near Phalaborwa, where they were given time to recover and form a troop. Last weekend, in a joint operation involving Care, South Africans against Vivisection and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, they were transported to Letaba in tiny cages ironically intended for laboratory use and given their freedom again.

“The baboons will be monitored to see if releasing them works,” says Greg Knill, director of Northern Province Conservation. “We are keen to have a functioning rehabilitation and release programme in this province.” Knill adds his organisation is in the process of rewriting apartheid-era legislation that discriminates against certain species as “problem” animals.

“Our draft Environmental Management Bill refers to ‘damage-causing’ animals, and will be applied to individuals of all species. It could apply to elephants and lions as well as jackals and primates. “It says that if you come across damage-causing animals, you must identify the individuals involved before deciding on the appropriate action. Relocation is the preferred option if possible, and hunting by professionals is another. Farmers can still shoot the animals in extreme cases.”

The blanket “problem” animal classification is being challenged in the high court in the Northern Cape, where a 1957 ordinance makes the killing of jackals and caracals compulsory.

Chris Mercer and Beverley Pervan, who run a wildlife rehabilitation centre in Kuruman, launched the legal challenge last month after Northern Cape conservation officials refused to allow them to keep three orphaned caracal kittens given to them by a farmer.

Mercer maintains the archaic ordinance has not only resulted in untold cruelty against “problem” animals, but is racist and unconstitutional.
“It says, for instance, that any six farm owners who are not black can form a club to hunt ‘problem’ animals. I am an advocate and I’ve never seen any legislation as poisonous as this ordinance.”

Ironically, on the day before the 30 baboons were given their freedom with the blessing of Northern Province conservation, high-ranking officials from the Northern Cape department turned up at Mercer’s rehabilitation centre to confiscate the three caracal kittens.

“The application of ‘problem’ animal legislation by the different provinces is schizophrenic,” says Care’s director, Rita Miljo. “We need a national policy that is consistently applied, so the rehabilitation centres know where they stand.”

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Fiona Macleod
Fiona Macleod

Fiona Macleod is an environmental writer for the Mail & Guardian newspaper and editor of the M&G Greening the Future and Investing in the Future supplements.

She is also editor of Lowveld Living magazine in Mpumalanga.

An award-winning journalist, she was previously environmental editor of the M&G for 10 years and was awarded the Nick Steele award for environmental conservation.

She is a former editor of Earthyear magazine, chief sub-editor and assistant editor of the M&G, editor-in-chief of HomeGrown magazines, managing editor of True Love and production editor of The Executive.

She served terms on the judging panels of the SANParks Kudu Awards and The Green Trust Awards. She also worked as a freelance writer, editor and producer of several books, including Your Guide to Green Living, A Social Contract: The Way Forward and Fighting for Justice.

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