Durban - Stock theft across the country is costing farmers more than R800 million a year and now it is likely to hit consumers in the pocket too.
Farmers in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands have not been spared, with ruthless stock thieves leaving a trail of devastation in their wake.
Recently, using the cover of darkness, rustlers broke through the gates of a Mooi River farm, 160km from Durban, and crept their way to a herd of cattle.
They tied up five bulls, including a stud, with rope and led the animals 8km away from the farm to a spot under a tree where they used machetes to crudely slaughter the animals for meat.
One bull can cost up to R40 000 and provide up to 350kg of meat.
By the time farmer, Owen Edwardes, had discovered his cattle were missing the next day and traced their carcasses to the tree, the meat had already been sold on the lucrative red meat black market.
According to the Red Meat Producers Organisation (RMPO), reported cases of stock theft cost the agricultural industry more than R800m in direct losses a year.
And if production and breeding losses are added, the figure runs into the billions annually.
Farmers and agriculture experts believe the situation is out of control and if nothing is done, it would lead to massive increases in meat prices and food insecurity.
Willie Clack, national chairman of Stock Theft Forum, said many farmers were reducing their herd sizes in the face of the rampant theft.
“What this means is that we won’t be able to afford meat in the future. If this continues as it is, we will get to a stage where demand will exceed the supply and ordinary people won’t be able to afford meat anymore,” he said.
Clack said the stock theft was run by organised crime syndicates who were selling meat on the black market for up to half the commercial price.
“This is a serious problem. Let’s put it into perspective, rhino poaching costs South Africa R400m a year while livestock theft costs R810m. That’s double rhino poaching but it does not get the attention from government and non-government organisations,” he said.
The RMPO estimates that about 55 000 cattle, 85 000 sheep, 34 200 goats were reported stolen annually.
It said that for every one incident in the commercial sector, five incidents occur in the emerging farmer sector while an estimated 64% of all theft goes unreported.
Speaking to the Daily News about the theft of his bulls, Edwardes, who has been a full-time farmer since 1991, choked up, saying the loss was personal.
He said he could not think of a single farm in Mooi River which had not been affected by stock theft.
“The theft is nothing but pure greed. The way they hacked my bulls was heart wrenching. It was done very crudely. They had no respect for the animal,” he said.
Edwardes, a second generation farmer, said stock thieves were ruthless and showed no compassion, not even for pregnant or lactating animals.
“This severely disrupts the production on the farm and becomes an added cost to the farmer. Animals selected over the years for their genetic traits are victims of stock theft and such genetics are then lost forever. The value of such losses is immeasurable,” he said.
In addition, he points out that violence is often associated with the business and the thieves were connected with other crimes.
“Border farms in KwaZulu-Natal are targeted by people from Lesotho trading marijuana and, in some cases, firearms. They return across border with stolen livestock,” he said.
Willie le Roux, of the Mooi River Farmer Association, agreed.
He said there was a large black market industry for red meat.
“This is being driven by syndicates. It is no longer an opportunist crime where someone will take one, they are taking them in large numbers. Now it is being done on a much larger scale and the meat is going into industry, some as far as Durban and to butcheries,” he said.
Le Roux said the syndicates were working with insiders at the various farms and could make off with up to 15 cows on a dairy farm on one night.
“Collectively the financial burden to the farmers is huge. The problem also is that it is very difficult to prosecute. We have been relying on informers to try track the guys down, but in the end it is very difficult to get it to court.”
Le Roux said the police were doing their best under trying circumstances.
“Unless you have caught the guy red handed and the police can take over and do their thing, it is very difficult to nail these guys.
“What we are finding more and more and it is not just stock theft, it is to do with security in general, we are having to install cameras, employ security firms to patrol, and employ our own investigators. Our spending on security is phenomenal,” he said.
Gerhard Schutte, national chairman of the Red Meat Producers Organisation, said they were very concerned.
“For every one theft in the commercial sector, there are four incidents in the emerging sector. It has a severe impact on food security, especially for the poor. It is getting bigger and bigger and it seems as if it is not stopping,” he said.