Wildlife rehabilitation in South Africa.
Wildlife rehabilitation, defined as “providing temporary care to injured, ill and orphaned wild animals with the goal of releasing them back into their natural habitat”, developed in response to the increase in human population and urbanisation. Widllife rehabilitation centres developed to deal with casualties from man-made hazards; and because rehabilitation involves human emotions of empathy and compassion, the activity has not tended to be the domain of wildlife specialists, but of concerned members of the public. This has caused concerns for wildlife specialists over the welfare of animals being rehabilitated, because making decisions based on emotions may result in an animal being kept alive under unethical conditions, instead of being euthansed. Furthermore, there may be negative impacts on conservation, as it could divert money away from habitat protection and may place wild populations at risk from disease and genetic pollution. This dichotomy in opinion is most often seen between rehabilitators, who focus on the individual animal, and government wildlife officials, who grant them permits, and who focus on the security of entire communities. Although the value of wildlife rehabilitation cannot be underestimated, in terms of its service to wildlife and the public, there is a need to evaluate whether wildlife rehabilitation may result in more rather than less animal suffering and have a detrimental impact on the existing wild populations. I thus set out to determine the efficacy of wildlife rehabilitation, particularly in South Africa. In the first assessment of rehabilitation centres in South Africa, 65% known centres (n = 63) from all nine provinces returned questionnaires. Several thousand injured, diseased and orphaned animals pass through these centres each year, clearly showing the need for rehabilitation centres in South Africa. However, due to lack of scientific research on the efficacy of rehabilitation methods of care and release, and minimal post-release monitoring, I found that experience and intuition drove most rehabilitation practices. Additionally, because personnel from most centres cited lack of finance as a main impediment to the goal of rehabilitation, the result of rehabilitation may include negative affects on individual animal welfare and survival, as well as on conservation efforts for wildlife communities. Thus, I suggested wildlife rehabilitation be centralised to a provincial or national government. Furthermore, I suggested that guidelines of minimum standards should be developed in consultation with experienced rehabilitators, veterinarians and conservation scientists; to be enforced by trained and dedicated conservation officials. To gain further insight into the need for wildlife rehabilitation in a community in South Africa, I decided to examine four-years of intake records from a large rehabilitation centre in the KwaZulu-Natal Province for trends. Animal intake rate was high (2701 ± 94 per annum). Most of the intake (90%) was birds, with few mammals (8%) and reptiles (2%), and most of these were of locally common species (eg doves, pigeons). This reflects the findings of other studies, namely that species living in close association with humans are the most frequently admitted to rehabilitation centres. In total, most of the animals admitted (43%) were juveniles, which were assumed to be abandoned or orphaned. The implications of then rehabilitating these juveniles, which were largely uninjured, is whether humans should be interfering with nature if the cause was not human-related; can each juvenile (especially in these large numbers) be adequately prepared to survive and thrive when released into the wild; and is there space in the environment for them, without causing harm to others already in the environment. I suggest that the large numbers of animals currently being admitted to the centre may be reduced, possibly through increased public education particularly to leave uninjured juveniles in the wild. Furthermore, improvements in the centre’s recording system may allow for use in funding requests and for various research opportunities. There is a general lack of post-release monitoring in wildlife rehabilitation, and the IUCN advises that confiscated and orphaned animals should be euthanased or placed in life-time captivity. I thus decided to document the post-release fate of rehabilitated vervet monkeys and leopard tortoises, two species commonly admitted to a rehabilitation centre, and rock hyrax (Procavia capensis), as a further case study, even though individuals were not from a rehabilitation centre. Success of releasing rehabilitated animals cannot be judged on whether it results in a self-sustaining population, as in reintroductions, as it is to improve the welfare of that particular animal, independent of its species’ status. Survival is thus the most basic indicator of a successful rehabilitation release. Other aspects, such as behaving similarly to a wild animal, are additional success factors, as they likely influence survival. Although after one year post-release, the two troops (T1 = 35, T2 = 24) of vervet monkeys (including an infant) survived, were independent of human food provision and companionship, had established in an area, and had births in the breeding season following release; low known survival (T1 = 11%, T2 = 50%) make it difficult to designate these releases as successful. However, it was clear that the two groups of rock hyrax released were not successful. The group of rock hyrax that had previously been in captivity for 16 months (n = 17) did not have site fidelity after release, and after three months could not be found. All wild rock hyrax (n = 9), except one whose fate is unknown, were found dead, mostly predated, within 18 days. The release likely failed due to predation. For both vervet monkeys and rock hyrax, a lack of social cohesion was suggested as causing the group to dissolve or split upon release, which in turn would increase their vulnerability to predation. Recommendations are provided for considerations in future releases of captive vervet monkeys and rock hyrax. Movements of two groups of tortoises (ten and seven individuals) released at two different sites were monitored over a year, using radio-telemetry. In total, one tortoise was returned to captivity because of disease, four were killed intentionally or accidentally by humans, three others died due to a combination of disease, starvation and/or dehydration, and the fate of six were unknown. Since only two out of seven tortoises survived 13 months after release and only one out of ten tortoises were known to have survived 25 months after release, rehabilitated leopard tortoises were not successfully released into the wild. Recommendations to improve the success of future releases are provided. The occurrence of disease in the tortoise release was a worrying result, and must be addressed before any further releases are allowed. To summarise, there is a dichotomy between wildlife rehabilitation and conservation throughout the world, but this study highlighted the situation in South Africa. The IUCN guidelines for the reintroduction, introduction and supplementation of animals make it clear that there are many threats to the individual animal, to the release environment and to the conservation of species when transporting and releasing animals, especially if they had been in captivity. I believe that I have presented enough evidence in the thesis to suggest that wildlife rehabilitation may result in negative consequences to the welfare of the individual being rehabilitated and to the wild conspecifics or to other species in the release site. I suggest that wildlife rehabilitation needs to move away from being an emotional-based “animal-rights” organisation, to being objectively managed, such that no harm is caused to conservation by these efforts. This may require them to change their constitution so they are aligned with the IUCN guidelines, where more consideration is given to the possible risks involved in releasing animals. However, the applicability of the IUCN guidelines will vary slightly according to the species and situation, and they require input from the local conservation authorities (as was the case in the studies documented in this thesis). I suggest that the public be educated as to the risks that wildlife rehabilitated animals can pose to the safety of the environment as a whole, and that rehabilitated animals do not necessarily survive or thrive in the wild when released, and thus they have to understand that rehabilitation centres will sometimes have to prioritise casualties for treatment, and euthanase exotic species. In conclusion, implementing further research in ensuring long-term post-release survival of rehabilitated animals; developing and enforcing practical guidelines/minimum standards by dedicated and qualified governmental wildlife conservation officials; and having examinations in order to qualify as a wildlife rehabilitator, will ensure humans are “making amends” instead of having an additional negative impact on conservation and animal welfare.
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