Sunday, July 11, 2010

The killers return

I did NOT enjoy my time with the mongooses yesterday.

I arrived at the study site to find a stake-out.
Rangers and other reserve staff lined the road. Someone had heard dogs barking: the poachers were back.

Poaching using hunting dogs is popular here, and the pack of dogs kills any animal it comes across, including mongooses. (I wrote about the consequences of their last visit here.)

"They're in there", said a ranger I met on the road, waving his hand directly at Koppiekats' territory.
Arrgh! This reserve is 3,000 ha in size; 6,000 ha if you count the adjoining reserve (no fences in between). My habituated mongooses use a total of 200 ha. What are the odds of the poachers choosing my study site? Twice!

The reserve staff (which included giggling domestic workers, gardeners and anyone one else they could rope in) seemed to have Ecthelion's and Koppiekats' ranges surrounded, so I decided Halcyon was the choice of the day. Located about ¾ km beyond the stake-out, I figured it should be OK if I kept my eyes and ears open.

 Pleaides (KF005) watching for danger at Koppiekats.

About 20 minutes later, I was sitting watching the mongooses stretch and yawn in the early sun when I heard something large approaching through the bush. It didn't sound like any animal I was familiar with, and I spent a couple of minutes straining to identify the sounds: wildebeest... eland... zebra? As the noises drew closer I came to the unpleasant conclusion that if it was nothing I recognised, it had to be a person (I told you I was a hermit). Heart thumping, I was just edging toward the mongooses' termite mound (to get discretely out of sight) and fumbling with my cell phone (to notify the rangers), when a man clambered up the embankment about 20m away from me. It wasn't an employee of the reserve, and no one I recognised. Fingering the pepper spray in my pocket, I continued to reverse toward the mound. I figured that the moment he saw me, he'd head the other way fast, so it was with a shock of horror that I watched him catch sight of me and swing round to come over. I only had time for a couple of gulped breaths before I saw he was carrying a walkie-talkie (a cunning prop?... nah, poachers aren't that affluent). Yet I was still unable to calm my racing heart. It transpired that he was an employee on the neighbouring reserve who'd seen my arrival from the far hillside, where he and his fellows were tracking footprints. He'd come over to let me know that they were there, so I wouldn't panic if I saw them (too late!).

After his departure, I attempted to recover my composure. Watching small animals snoozing in the sun, combined with deep breathing, is most therapeutic so I was almost back to normal when the shooting started. A loud volley of shots rang out, followed by another; and another. It was coming from the direction of the stake-out and, although it was distant enough not to endanger me, I was unnerved, having no idea of what was going on. I figured that the rangers were probably doing the shooting (because poachers with guns shouldn't need dogs) or at least I hoped that was the case. Meanwhile the mongooses went into a complete panic. They're not afraid of gun fire, but every grey lourie within a 5 km radius cried out in alarm, and the mongooses take lourie alarms VERY seriously.

 Grey louries (Corythaixoides concolor) are now officially named grey go-away-birds after their loud calls. My mongooses take the warning to heart, fleeing to cover for 85% of lourie alarm calls, compared with 50% of tree squirrel alarms and 42% of hornbill alarms.
Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.

When the second round of shooting broke out, closer this time, I began to think that maybe I should just go home. I was sitting debating the pros and cons (scientific commitment versus personal safety) when the squirrels down by the creek erupted in a frenzy of alarms. A large black dog came loping past me. He was on a mission and took no notice of me or the wildly fleeing mongooses, but I began to suspect that this was not the place to be. The mongooses came to the same conclusion, deserting their sleeping mound to race off in the opposite direction to the dog. This made me even more anxious; they'd have been much safer just retreating back to bed. Still, there was nothing I could do to protect them, so I gave up and went home.

The rangers didn't manage to catch the poachers but they shot six dogs (more innocent victims). However, since there were at least twelve dogs in the pack (how much poaching do you need to do just to maintain twelve large dogs?), these animals are still rampaging in my mongooses' home ranges. I'm hoping the dogs will be too spooked by the shooting to indulge in much hunting, but who knows.
Once I got home, I found I really was quite stressed, so decided to take today off (it is Sunday after all). Tomorrow is soon enough to assess the casualties.

The reserve in which I work, on a more peaceful morning.


  1. OMG Lynda!! WHAT a time you have had!! This has to be one of the most awful stories I have read for a long time!! What in heavens name is going on with all this poaching that has started up again, especially the rhino? Things are changing so fast in your area now. I wonder how much of it has to do with the opening of the border between Kruger and Mozambique? I said from the beginning that this was the worst thing that could happen as now there is NO control!!

    What a pity that they shot the dogs and not the poachers!! I know what I would like to do to them f I ever caught one!!

    I am pleased you are okay but PLEASE be careful and rather stay at home in circumstances like this.

  2. Hi Lynda I got your link from Joan's blog that was a very frightening story glad you are ok.I listened to the news this morning and I believe they have found 4 poachers in the Kruger with Rhino Horn and AK47's what is going on ? anyway you have a great blog here :))

  3. Joan,
    Thanks for your concern.
    The rhino poaching seems to be a problem countrywide, not just up here. There are many rumours circulating that it's a result of corruption at the highest levels, and it certainly looks suspicious that the recovery rate for poached horns has dropped from 68 percent a couple of years ago to only 8 percent now!

    Hi,it's nice to hear from you.
    I'm glad that they're catching at least some of the poachers. SANParks are asking people here to report any 'suspicious' low-flying Robinson R44 helicopters (the helicopter of choice for today's rhino poacher). Of course, I've no idea what a Robinson R44 looks like or how to tell if it's suspicious (dark glasses, loitering on street corners?).

  4. I feel for you. At time you have a job that is so full of life and wonder ... but the flip side you cope with is daunting.

  5. I have heard the same rumours Lynda and they do not surprise me in the least. After all, the average poacher does not have the kind of money to invest in the sophisticated equipment they are using.

    If Philip is correct, I am glad they caught them, now if they can just get hold of the leaders but they are too careful.

  6. You left us on such a cliff hanger, this is pure torture! I'm anxiously waiting to hear whether all the little mongooses are still alive and kicking.
    (Glad you are safe and hoping for good news on the mongooses.)

  7. Elva,
    I think life is always like that; anything wonderful carries an equally dramatic cost.

    I think you are right.

    Everyone in Koppiekats, Halcyon and Ecthelion (the groups in the thick of things) are fine. Laziness does pay! I think they were all still lounging about in bed when the poachers came through. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Bugbears, whose range is about 3km from the other groups. They've lost one of their little guys, Melursus. At least no one is injured; I guess it could have been much worse.

  8. Hi Lynda, definitely not a nice experience. I am sure that if the police had the will some good detective work will locate the culprits. They must live within close proximity of the park.
    If you google Robinson R44 you will soon get an idea of what they look like.

  9. Max-e,
    I can now identify a Robinson R44!
    The park brought in the police, but I don't know the outcome. However, I've heard previously that the poachers who use packs of dogs are often not locals, trucking the dogs in from town. This is why I find dogs, that have been left behind, starving to death in the bush.

  10. Did you take all the photos that are on
    your blog?

  11. Kirsten,
    No, I don't tend to take photos much (I explain why in the post, 'Why I don't take photos' under May).
    If a photo isn't credited to anyone, it means I took it.


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