Vir­tual fence to keep ba­boons at bay

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - SHEREE BEGA

A “LAND­SCAPE of fear” – one that ex­ists purely in the mind of tar­get an­i­mals.

That’s how Phil Richard­son de­scribes the vir­tual fences his wildlife man­age­ment com­pany has de­vel­oped to chase away un­wanted an­i­mals, in this case, a troop of ba­boons in Gor­don’s Bay.

“I like to think of a vir­tual fence as if it were a ter­ri­to­rial bound­ary. It is a well-known bound­ary that ex­ists purely in the mind of the tar­get animal. He re­spects it out of fear that if he is caught tres­pass­ing, he will face se­ri­ous ret­ri­bu­tion, like be­ing beaten up and pos­si­bly killed.

“It is this fear of ret­ri­bu­tion that makes the animal re­spect the bound­ary and stay on his side,” Richard­son said in his pre­sen­ta­tion at the seventh Op­pen­heimer De Beers Group re­search con­fer­ence in Joburg this week.

The main aim of a vir­tual fence was to cre­ate ar­eas per­ceived to be scarier than oth­ers.

“The fence pro­duces a va­ri­ety of stim­uli such as alarm calls, preda­tor calls, sounds of dy­ing an­i­mals, preda­tors squab­bling and py­rotech­nics, which cre­ate stim­u­lus un­pre­dictabil­ity, thus min­imis­ing the chances of ha­bit­u­a­tion.”

Other scary sounds and loud bangs could be added “to en­hance the fear”, he said.

“The sound and hor­mones pro­duced by ag­i­tated swarm­ing bees can also be added to the mix.”

Un­til now, vir­tual fenc­ing had had very limited ap­pli­ca­tion to wildlife, “but the po­ten­tial is cer­tainly huge”, he said.

At the be­gin­ning of the year Richard­son’s firm cre­ated a vir­tual fence to de­ter a troop of ba­boons in­creas­ingly sleep­ing on the cliffs above Gor­don’s Bay, then raid­ing the town ev­ery morn­ing and evening for break­fast and an early sup­per.

The vir­tual fence con­tained sev­eral “ac­tion sta­tions” placed in a line be­tween the Steen­bras Dam and the False Bay coast­line.

“These are wa­ter­proof boxes that con­tain a dou­ble bar­relled bear­banger and two high-amp speak­ers. The sta­tions are ra­dio con­trolled from a hand- held re­mote with a range of 700m.”

The al­pha male ba­boons were col­lared with GPS, record­ing their po­si­tion at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals.

“When the ba­boons ap­proach, the op­er­a­tor is sent an SMS in­di­cat­ing the ba­boons’ po­si­tion. The op­er­a­tor then drives to the site and sets out seven ac­tion sta­tions about 50m apart, and hidden in a line ahead of the ba­boons.

“The op­er­a­tor, also hidden on a nearby hill­side, starts play­ing calls like an alarm call, then lions roar­ing, then a buf­falo be­ing killed. The ba­boons be­come very ag­i­tated and the al­pha male of­ten ap­proaches to see where the dan­ger is com­ing from.”

The bear­bangers are then ac­ti­vated.

“The ba­boons im­me­di­ately run off.

“Ba­boon prob­lems are now be­ing ex­pe­ri­enced in the Ka­roo, with some farm­ers los­ing up to 50 per­cent of their an­nual lamb yield. Putting col­lars on adult male ba­boons and on their sheep will alert the farm­ers when the ba­boons come on to their farms.

“The same prin­ci­pal could be ap­plied to col­lar­ing leopards and lions and vul­ner­a­ble stock like cat­tle or high-value game.”

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