Kimberley - Tests have confirmed that poison was responsible for the deaths of the more than 200 blue cranes near Richmond, and environmentalists are calling for the most severe punishment possible to be imposed on the farmer who is alleged to have poisoned the birds.

The blue crane is South Africa’s national bird as well as the 2015 bird of the year.

The birds were allegedly poisoned since 2012 after being attracted to newly-planted fields and a pivot on the sheep and cattle farm.

The results of a toxicological analysis, conducted by Dr Gerhard Verdoorn, director of the Griffon Poison Information Centre, have confirmed very high levels of the poison diazinon in the stomach content of the dead blue crane samples.

Diazinon is widely used as blowfly remedy for wool-producing sheep in the Karoo and has now been linked to the deliberate poisoning of between 200 and a thousand blue cranes, an incident described as “the worst of its kind to date”.

According to witnesses, the individual believed to have poisoned the cranes also made statements that he had used aldicarb to poison the birds.

Verdoorn, however, said on Tuesday that due to the limited samples that were available to the Nama Karoo Foundation (NKF), who requested support with the investigation from the Griffon Poison Information Centre, it was not yet possible to ascertain whether aldicarb was also used to poison the cranes.

“However, circumstantial evidence indicates that more than one poisoning incident occurred and it is therefore highly likely that further evidence may reveal pesticides other than diazinon,” Verdoorn said on Tuesday.

The outcome of forensic investigations by the Northern Cape Department of Environment and Conservation (NCDENC) and the police, who also collected carcasses of frozen dead blue cranes, are still awaited.

Verdoorn said that, given statements made by farm workers, it was highly likely that in excess of 200 blue cranes were deliberately killed over a period of three years.

The poisoning of birds (apart from the Red-billed Quelea which may only be done by the Department of Agriculture to protect small grain crops) is prohibited by South African law.

It is a contravention of the Northern Cape Nature Conservation Act to “hunt” a wild animal by poisoning – in this context “hunt” is described amongst others as killing. It is also a contravention of the Animal Protection Act. The Fertilizers, Farm Feeds, Agricultural Remedies and Stock Remedies Act further prohibits the use of a stock remedy (such as diazinon) for any purpose other than what the label indicates, hence the poisoning of the birds with a stock remedy signifies another contravention of national legislation.

The most daunting penalties, however, are found in Threatened or Protection Species Regulations of the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act, under which a person who, without a permit, kills a threatened or protected species with a poison may be liable to a fine of R100 000 or three times the value of such an animal and/or a five-year prison sentence. Other penalties may be as severe as 10 years imprisonment.

The Griffon Poison Information Centre on Tuesday appealed to the NCDENC and the SAPS to “leave no stone unturned” in the investigation into the poisonings.

“It is inconceivable that any individual should be allowed to deliberately poison blue cranes which are classified as vulnerable under the IUCN Red List Categories with a population of around 25 500 individuals that are threatened by direct poisoning, powerline collisions, habitat loss and illegal trade. It is the duty of the state to execute its constitutional obligation to bring wildlife crimes such as these to justice – the public have no mandate to enforce legislation but we are most willing to assist in any way we can to bring an end to the scourge of deliberate wildlife poisoning,” Verdoorn said.

Apart from the poisoning incident, there are also habitat modification and land-use changes on the farm where the poisoning allegedly occurred that appear to be questionable.

Verdoorn added that farmers from across the country have called to express their disgust at this crime and offered their support to safeguard the blue crane population.

“We strongly urge law enforcement agencies to ensure that this investigation is carried out with the professionalism the citizenry demands of state agencies. The investigation should have been done in 2012 when the first evidence of the deliberate poisoning was uncovered.

“We also appeal to the National Prosecution Authority and the Department of Justice to treat wildlife crimes like these with serious attention ... such crimes are speeding up the extinction of species.”

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