Caracal poaching concern

Dr Laurel Serieys of the Urban Caracal Project with a caracal kitten. The project has identified rat poison as a killer across most predatory wildlife, including caracal, otters, genets and owls.

A wild juvenile caracal named
Spitfire was rescued from an illegal trap in the Noordhoek wetlands – but a caracal kitten wasn’t as lucky.

All that remained of the kitten was its skin, which was still in the trap found by SANParks rangers.

Dr Laurel EK Serieys is the project coordinator for the Urban Caracal Project.

She is a Research Associate for the Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild) and belongs to the department of biological sciences of the University of Cape Town.

“This poaching incident happened in the Noordhoek wetlands and is not an isolated case,” she said. She said SANParks rangers were patrolling the wetlands when they discovered a caracal caught in a snare.

“It was one of our ear-tagged caracals, Spitfire – a caracal commonly seen by horse-riders in the wetlands,” she said.

Spitfire was one of two young caracals caught and collared on January 18. Both female caracal had been found on the Noorhoek wetlands, about 200 metres from one another.

Spitfire was named for her feisty and tenacious spirit and both cats were fitted with GPS radio-collars, which fall off after six months.

The rangers were able to safely release Spitfire, but in the process they discovered that a caracal kitten had been previously caught in the snare, and only its skin remained, Dr Seriesy said.

“Poaching is known to occur even in the Cape Peninsula, and we previously documented one of our radio-collared caracals poached in the wetlands a couple of years ago,” Dr Serieys said.

The two biggest threats to local wildlife though, Dr Serieys said, were motorists, and the use of rat poison, which was killing wildlife through a process known as biomagnification.

Rodents exposed to rat poisons take up to 10 days to die and in the meantime, they become easy prey for a variety of predatory species.

“In this process known as biomagnification, top predators experience a huge build-up of toxins in their system. With every poisoned rat they consume, more poison builds in their system. The higher up on the food chain the predator is, the easier it is for poisons to become concentrated in their system,” she explained.

“There is widespread poisoning of wildlife by rat poisons that are used in and around urban areas in the black bait boxes frequently seen against exterior walls of buildings. We tested 28 caracals for poison exposure and found 92% exposed, including caracals that died in Cape Point.

“We detected the same poison in otters, genets, water mongoose, an owl from the Cape Peninsula, and even in a badger that we collected from the northern suburbs,” she said.

Saving the local wildlife is comparatively easy though – by the simple omission of poison use.

“Stop using poisons in and around your homes, even if you’ve been told they are environmentally safe. There are no rat poisons available that don’t bioaccumulate in food webs,” Dr Serieys said.

“Even poisons used inside your homes can make their way into the environment, and this is something that as individuals, we can make a difference in,” she said.

The Urban Caracal Project was formed in September 2014 when Dr Serieys came to Cape Town from Los Angeles.

Cape Peninsula is a “biodiversity hot spot” that has lost almost all its large mammals such as Cape lions, leopards, brown hyena, and jackals but Dr Serieys believes that caracals may play a vital role in maintaining ecosystem balance since they are the largest remaining predator in the area.

The next greatest threat to caracals are motorists – in one year alone the project has collected 20 cats from the roadside in reported accidents. And this was just the reported number.

“What this means is that the actual number of car-related fatalities is likely much higher than we realise,” she said, adding that caracal regularly crossed Philip Kgosana Drive (previously known as De Waal Drive) and the M3.

Laduma was the first radio-collared caracal tracked for a total of 162 days as he roamed about 139 square kilometres across the mountain.

“That’s massive when considering that Table Mountain National Park and surrounding green spaces within the city only offer approximately 220 square kilometres of suitable caracal habitat,” Dr Serieys said.

The Urban Caracal Project was set up under the Cape Leopard Trust banner for two years from 2015 to 2017 before becoming an independent project. Helen Turnbull, CEO of the Cape Leopard Trust, said that everyone needs to be made aware that when rats go into the rat boxes outside shops and restaurants the animal doesn’t die immediately.

“The anti-coagulent ingredient in the poison means that it’s a slow death that drags many other wildlife species down with it. I would love to see a sign up in supermarkets saying ‘think twice before you buy Rattex’ – with images on it of owls, snakes, caracals, dogs and cats. The consumer is just not aware,” she said.

She said the trust had seen an increase in wildlife poaching with illegal wire snares and had recently employed a full-time snare patrol officer to work alongside CapeNature and identify the extent of the problem.