The last victims of Robben Island

A A A

It may be more than a decade since South Africa's first free elections, but apartheid is still claiming victims. This time, however, it is penguins that are being killed - by the descendants of pet cats kept by warders on notorious Robben Island.

At least 70 wild cats are freely roaming the island, where Nelson Mandela spent most of his 27 years of captivity, and decimating wildlife. Now a sharp-shooter has been hired to pick them off, causing an outcry from animal lovers.

The windswept dot in the ocean - 12 kilometres offshore from Cape Town, and a place of incarceration for more than 400 years - is now a wildlife reserve. More than 130 bird species - including 7,000 breeding pairs of African penguins - throng the island that was first used to hold prisoners in the 17th century.

But a meeting of experts decided this month that feral cats descended from warders' pets left behind when Mr Mandela and his colleagues were freed are "having a devastating effect on most of the endangered birds on the island".

And Professor Les Underhill, the head of the Avian Demography Unit at the University of Cape Town , claims that the cats are severely endangering one of the islands rarest birds, the protected African Black Oystercatcher.

Five years ago, he pointed out, almost 60 oystercatcher chicks grew to maturity, but last year just three escaped the feline menu. The cats, he adds, are eating large numbers of penguin chicks - while other rare birds have given up on the island altogether and are breeding elsewhere.

"It is serious stuff," said Professor Underhill. "Cats don't belong on offshore islands where there are breeding birds."

But the employment of a sharpshooter has infuriated the local branch of the country's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. It has argued that this is violating an agreement with the island authorities that allows the society to trap the animals, sterilise them and return them to the island.

The authorities retort that sterilised cats also kill birds and point out that the society's attempts to trap them have failed; a blitz earlier this year netted only eight of the animals.

Alan Perrins, the chief executive officer of its Cape of Good Hope branch, admits the lack of success - but blames the penguins for the fiasco. He suspects that the birds had set off the traps laid for the cats by snaffling the bait of pilchards and chicken.

Anyway, he says, the former pets may not be the real new villains of Robben Island, pleading for the authorities to be "a bit more open-minded".

For example, he adds, mice three times the normal size had been found to be decimating seabirds on another island nearby. And he urges that a "radical theory" - that rabbits "running around like packs of rats" might have turned carnivore - should not be dismissed, though he could provide no evidence to support it. Other potential villains on his list include the black mole snake, which eats eggs and young birds, and the 1,000 or so tourists who land to visit the former prison each day.

But Professor Underhill and the authorities are unmoved. They want to get the shooting over before the winter rains arrive, allowing vegetation to grow and give the animals cover.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Jodie Stimpson crosses the finishing line to win gold in the women's triathlon
Commonwealth games
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan stars as Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey movie
filmFirst look at Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey trailor
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
Life and Style
Phillips Idowu, Stella McCartney and Jessica Ennis
fashionMcCartney to continue designing Team GB Olympics kit until 2016
Sport
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Biomass Sales Consultant

£20000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitment Company...

Java Developer

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My Client are a successful software hous...

Senior Analyst - Financial Modelling

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: This really is a fantastic chance to joi...

MS Dynamics NAV/Navision Developer

£45000 - £53000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: **MS DYNAMICS N...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game