Eliminating indiscriminate poisoning

A vulture swooping down on a piece of meat cannot know that the juicy morsel might be its last meal. But, when farmers put poisoned meat around their farms to protect their herds from predators, it can result in the deaths of game and wild fowl in the area. Pesticides used to reduce vegetation and protect grazing land might harm wildlife also.

“Everyone has a right to look after their livelihoods,” said Poison Prevention Group manager Tim Snow.
But he said that some methods of combating predators, such as loading meat with highly toxic chemicals, are irresponsible and can have destructive knock-on effects.

Snow estimates that between 370 000 to 490 000 game or waterfowl die every year from indiscriminate poisoning. An analysis of data collected from several sources indicates that there might be a downward trend in the number of poisonings that occur around the country, he said.

The Poison Prevention Group was launched in 1992 in response to a perceived increase in the poisoning of wildlife.

The organisation initially focused on birdlife, but has broadened its focus to biodiversity in general and environmental health. It runs several projects, including a poisoning prevention programme, a vegetation management programme and an international environmental health programme.

The group hosts an email-based network called the National Animal Conflict Advisory Forum where ornithologists advise people on managing birdlife.

It is also chairs the National Chemical Crime Management Forum, which involves police, veterinary services and chemical companies to address issues around problematic products.

The Poison Prevention Group is a working group of the Endangered Wildlife Trust and recently changed its name from the Poison Working Group to better reflect its mission.

The Environmental Working Group is a non-governmental, non-profit conservation organisation that was founded in 1973 and operates through southern Africa.

The Poison Prevention Group promotes “responsible predator management” and has evolved its strategy over the years on how best to deal with predators to increasingly focus on prevention.

In an urban context, it would advise people who had a rodent problem to first clear up the area to make the environment unsuitable for a rat infestation, said Snow. The group would then recommend installing owl boxes and, only as a last step, would it suggest that pesticides be introduced. It recommends the use of pesticides with certain chemicals that reduce the risk of untargeted contamination.

The NGO is involved in data collection also. Volunteers across the country supplement its five-person staff and the 45 staff members of the Environmental Working Group to report cases of poisoned wildlife.

When people call the Poison Prevention Group to report a specimen, they are advised on how to collect the specimen safely and to clear the site. Courier company DHL collects the specimen, puts it in a cooler box and transports it to a depot until it can deliver it to the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute.

Scientists at the institute test the specimen to identify whether the animal was poisoned and to identify what chemicals were used.

The results are recorded in a database. The Poison Prevention Group presents its data on a quarterly basis to the chemical industry.

Over the years the group has forged relationships with members of the farming community and chemical industry.

Several of its sponsors come from the pesticide industry, including organisations such as Bayer and Monsanto. Other companies, such as Mazda, sponsor equipment for the group to use. DHL provides its courier service free of charge.

The group works with government departments, for example, by training staff to dispose of pesticides and pesticide containers.

The group helps to reintroduce Oxpeckers on to farms. These birds, which feed on ticks on herds, could disappear from farms if farmers use inappropriate dipping products and unintentionally kill them off.

Another project that the organisation works on is the vegetation management programme, which helps farmers prevent vegetation from encroaching on grazing ground. As part of this project, staff members visit farms to advise farmers on how to improve their grazing patterns and herd size.

While the Poison Prevention Group seeks to protect animals, it does not believe that toxic substances, such as dichloro-diphenyl-trichlorethane (DDT), can never be used. DDT is banned in some countries because of its damaging effect on wildlife in areas where it is applied.

DDT was reintroduced by the Department of Health to combat malaria in KwaZulu-Natal when it discovered that the mosquitoes were resistant to other chemicals. The Poison Prevention Group helped draw up an environmental protocol governing the use of DDT in South Africa. It also helps to monitor the use of the substance.

Removing stockpiles of chemicals is another task that the Poison Prevention Group has taken on. Along with other NGOs, it collected 150 tons of obsolete and unwanted chemicals as part of a government-driven project.

In 2001/02 it retrieved 30 tons of obsolete garden pesticides under the banner of Operation Wagtail, named after a garden bird whose presence indicates a pesticide-free garden.

Currently, it is one of seven NGOs from seven countries participating in the first phase of the African Stockpile Programme. The project is based in Senegal and is co-funded by the World Bank.

Snow said the bulk of chemicals collected previously came from government-held stocks they hoped to be able to focus more on farms in future.

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