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Wildlife worries farmers bordering SKA nature reserve

Small predators harming sheep due to lack of “proper fencing” around giant radio telescope site

Farmers neighbouring the new game reserve around South Africa’s Square Kilometre Array radio telescope are growing frustrated by the impacts of predators on their livestock.

The Meerkat National Park is being created on 135,000 hectares of former farmland that buffer the telescope’s sensitive equipment from interference. It will not be open to visitors but will be used to study dryland ecosystem dynamics.

The reserve will be managed by the country’s national parks system but has not yet been fenced. Small predators such as black-backed jackals and caracals have moved onto the land in recent years.

Wynand Boshoff, an academic and politician from the Northern Cape, where the park is located, told Research Professional News that the problem is most pressing during lambing season. “The wool breeds—the merino sheep—they are more vulnerable to this sort of thing. It could easily be that the farmer will lose 15 to 20 per cent of the lamb harvest…It could be higher,” he said.

Boshoff says it has also placed an additional burden on farmers to try to protect livestock or eliminate small predators, who are proliferating due to the absence of large carnivores that would ordinarily keep their numbers in check. “Normally if you have proper fencing between yourself and a game farm or a reserve, you can get it under control, but in this case you just don’t get it under control.”

‘No progress, only promises’

During an oversight visit to the Northern Cape in January 2022, the parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Innovation heard concerns from a sheep-farming cooperative around a lack of predator management within the park and resultant stock losses.

More than a year on, there’s still no date for construction of the fence to commence. “The problem is that there has for such a long time not been any progress, only promises,” Boshoff says.

In response to Boshoff’s parliamentary question about a construction date earlier this month, science and higher education minister Blade Nzimande said the funding for the fencing project was only secured in December and that the tender would be advertised in early April. Once a contractor is secured, it is expected to take at least 30 months to complete around 223 kilometres of fencing.

This means farmers face at least two more years of stock losses.

The Square Kilometre Array site falls within South Africa’s poorly studied Nama-Karoo biome. As well as collecting weather and climate data, researchers will monitor changes in vegetation and animal populations in the park. Insights from the research could increase understanding of how the Karoo and other arid regions might fare in relation to climate change.

Lucius Moolman from South African National Parks told Research Professional News that managing problem animals will only become his agency’s responsibility once the fence is up. Until then, he says, that responsibility falls to the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory, which manages SKA in South Africa.