Think like a bokkie

Chin deep in the long grass, we can only identify our fellow hikers by the colours of their hats. Those who oh-so-cleverly chose camo gear today are all but lost to us, as we struggle through the dense bush towards a clearing. We are supposed to be scanning the area in a straight line, 11 of us spanning a 100 metre grid, moving forward slowly, searching the base of trees and bushes as we pass by. It’s possible that we are still in a straight line, but at this point, I really would not know.

Today’s hike is quite different from our usual endeavors. Generally we stick to a trail in single file. Today our group is spread out within calling distance, attempting to locate game trails which are hidden below the fresh grass growth. We are failing dismally until we hit a more wooded brushy area where the grass dissipates into a number of game trails that fork into the woods.

Snare removal hike

Earlier this morning, Dr Paul Bartels, manager of the Nyoka Cape Vulture Restaurant and owner of the farm through which we have gained access to the Magaliesberg mountain, had spent quite sometime briefing us on how to think like a bokkie, in the attempt to find and remove snares on the slopes of the mountain.

Dr Bartels’ position as a biodiversity environmentalist has been entrenched in the Magaliesberg. He is a prominent member of the newly formed Magaliesberg Biosphere Board as well as the WESSA NAR Board which launched the Save Magalies Species project and the snare removal project.

Dr Bartels’ position as a biodiversity environmentalist has been entrenched in the Magaliesberg. He is a prominent member of the newly formed Magaliesberg Biosphere Board as well as the WESSA NAR Board which launched the Save Magalies Species project and the snare removal project.

It all begins with Brandy

Brandy sporting her new GPS collar, shortly after being released. Photo credit: Africa Geographic.

Brandy sporting her new GPS collar, shortly after being released. Photo credit: Africa Geographic.

The Magaliesberg snare problem was first identified in September 2014 when a Leopard named Brandy was found to have been caught in a snare. As part of a rehabilitation programme, Brandy’s movements were being monitored through a GPS tracking collar and the alarm was raised when she appeared to have not moved at all for a period of three days. Dr Bartels and his team found Brandy caught in a snare, the wire having cut through to her rib cage around her chest. They darted and airlifted her to safety and she was operated on at the Johannesburg Zoo. During the physical exam, Dr Bartels and colleagues discovered she was pregnant with three cubs, and so it was important to return her to her home range in the Magaliesberg as soon as possible. Since her second return to the wild, she has thrived, bearing another litter of at least two cubs which have been photographed on camera traps in the mountains. If you want to read the full Brandy story, and we wouldn’t blame you, click through to the Leopard with Nine Lives article. 

One of Brandy's teenage cubs, caught by a camera trap. Photo Credit: Africa Geographic

One of Brandy's teenage cubs, caught by a camera trap. Photo Credit: Africa Geographic

Snares on the slopes of Magaliesberg

Upon further investigation, Dr Bartels and his team of students from TUT discovered that the prevalence of snares in the veld was far more than they could have predicted. He has since been running volunteer snare removal hikes roughly once or twice a month across the slopes of the range, removing up to 60 snares per hectre on some of the early days. The snares were not just set for small prey such as bush buck and warthog but larger snares had successfully caught Reedbuck, Kudu and Leopard like Brandy. It’s hard to imagine a beast the size of a Kudu getting caught in one of these traps until you see the size and strength of the snares yourself.

Deep grooves in the trunk of a tree from an animal previously caught in the same snare. On the right, even the thick cable of the Kudu snare is hard to see.

Deep grooves in the trunk of a tree from an animal previously caught in the same snare. On the right, even the thick cable of the Kudu snare is hard to see.

One of the smaller snares, used to catch smaller antelope & warthog. The loop is propped open by two sticks and the snare firmly tied to the branch of a tree.

One of the smaller snares, used to catch smaller antelope & warthog. The loop is propped open by two sticks and the snare firmly tied to the branch of a tree.

Dr Bartels explains that the snares are set up in groups of at least 10 as they are grouped together to allow poachers to check them with relative ease. He has discovered and is tracking ‘hotspots’ on the slopes of the mountain and points out that the margin areas of the Magaliesberg, exposed to a lot of nearby human settlement make for rife areas of poaching. The setting of snares seems to be feeding into the illegal bushmeat trade and are in and of themselves a completely illegal form of poaching in the Magaliesberg Biosphere, whether for subsistence or trade. This is a complex problem and it is being dealt with from multiple angles. The TUT students Dr Bartels works with are launching a sociological enquiry to discover why and how locals are setting snares.  In the meantime, snare removals are an attempt to make it an unsustainable practice for poachers, whilst saving the lives of animals targeted. There has been some success in diminishing the numbers of snares set in recorded hotspots and our job today is to scan an area north of a previous hotspot to see if poachers have moved higher up the slope to avoid their snares being found and removed.

Thinking like a poacher who thinks like a bokkie

So this why we find ourselves at the entrance to the woods and brush, lowering our gaze and repeating over and over, think like a bokkie. Scanning the area, Eras and I notice quite a clear path through the underbrush with fresh Kudu spoor. We seem to have stumbled onto a fresh game path and follow it into the woods. Eras follows the path as it splits and picks up on a tell tale poaching trick, the area to the left and right of the path have been closed up with broken branches as a natural funnel intended to herd the game down the path and under a large branch which has been wedged between two trees. Sure enough, moving closer he spots a large loop of wire, tied securely to the branch and extending down to the ground, held open by two branches stuck into the soil. It’s the first of 12 snares our group finds along the game paths and undergrowth of this little wooded area. These snares are surprisingly hard to spot, the wire is often rusted and re-used and thus well camouflaged. The traps are set on or just off of game paths, thus out of the sight and usual grounds of humans and hikers. You are unlikely to just stumble upon one, you need to look to find.

We take the snares down as per Dr Bartels instructions. We photograph the snare, mark it’s location on our GPS device and then cut the wire with a Leatherman. It takes us an average of 5 minutes to undo a single snare, with two free hands and a bolt cutter, it is a nigh on impossible task for an animal to escape, and leads with almost certainty to a very painful death. Animals are lucky to be caught around the neck which leads to a faster death of asphyxiation, should they be caught around a limb or torso, death usually comes after much struggle and suffering.

12 snares removed. The wire used seems to be obtained from nearby mining operations as it is a multiple strand heavy duty steel composite and often can’t be undone by hand alone.

12 snares removed. The wire used seems to be obtained from nearby mining operations as it is a multiple strand heavy duty steel composite and often can’t be undone by hand alone.

How you can help

Should you come across a snare during a hike in the Magaliesberg, please:

  • Photograph it - a simple camera phone pic to show the type of snare.
  • Note down its location - preferably with GPS coordinates or alternatively on a map.
  • Remove the snare - it is preferable to cut the wire off so that poachers can see it has been wilfully removed.
  • Take the wire home with you and dispose of it.
  • If you have time, scan the surrounding paths and undergrowth for more snares.
  • Email the info, pics and co-ordinates to Dr Paul Bartels on bartpaul@gmail.com

Should you want to volunteer for a snare removal hike in the future, find more information on the facebook pagewebsite, or email Dr Paul Bartels directly. If you are willing or able to donate to the cause, find out how to get involved here.