Origin Mail & Guardian - Fiona Macleod
Fashion and decor shops trading in huge quantities of porcupine quills are contributing directly to the imminent extinction of the species, warns an independent report on the trade released this week.
Despite the fact that porcupines are listed as a protected species by the government, retail outlets are dealing in hundreds of thousands of quills, encouraging farmers to kill porcupines for profit. Prices range from 50c to R40 a quill, depending on their quality and the end destination. They are used to make jewellery, lampshades, picture frames, table mats and coasters.
"The number of retail outlets stocking porcupine quills and quill products has increased substantially. Only a few years ago, one could only obtain quills that were sold in small bundles through a few retails stores or farm stalls, but today one can buy huge quantities through a large number of outlets," says the report, which is based on a comprehensive investigation into the trade commissioned by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw). Ifaw commissioned the research in an attempt to educate consumers and tourists.
The report says there is a functioning "black market" where anonymous dealers are able to supply anything between 20 000 and 200 000 quills on request. The Mail & Guardian tracked down one middleman this week, who said he had about 250 000 quills to sell. Wally Nigrini, a farmer based near Beaufort West, said the proceeds from the sale of the quills would be used to fund a "hit squad" set up by a local farmers' union against stock thieves operating in the area.
He gathered his quills from farmers who regard porcupines as pests and has no qualms about hunting them or encouraging workers to kill them. The workers eat the dead animals and give the quills to the farmers. "Quills have become very popular recently. Even the Chinese are exporting them," said Nigrini. "They are prepared to pay R30 to R40 for a thick quill. They use them for mats, pens and bangles."
The Ifaw report says middlemen are capitalising on farmers' antipathy towards porcupines. Many farmers regard them as "problem animals" or "vermin" because they eat crops, dig up irrigation piping and bite through fencing, helping predators to prey on livestock.
Porcupines are easy to kill despite their armament. When threatened, they erect their quills, rattle their hollow tails and run backwards towards their aggressor but, contrary to popular belief, they do not shoot their quills. A single, severe blow to a soft spot on the porcupine's forehead is usually fatal. Metal traps, gin traps, poison, dogs and guns are also used to kill them.
In draft regulations on threatened and endangered species, published by the department of environmental affairs and tourism for public comment, porcupines are listed as protected. This means they are "an indigenous species of high conservation value or national importance that requires national protection".
However, nobody knows how many there are or what impact the recent surge in trade is having on the species. Few, if any, provincial conservation authorities regulate the hunting of these animals or the quill trade.
"It is generally assumed that the species is relatively common throughout the country and that the core population is stable. This assumption is not based on scientific analysis," says the report, compiled by researchers Nick Chevallier and Belinda Ashton. They add that an indigenous porcupine in Italy, considered a delicacy and hunted extensively, recently became extinct.
If the Biodiversity Bill is passed and porcupines are officially listed as protected, it would be illegal to hunt them or trade in any body parts without a permit. New hunting regulations being drafted by the department would make it illegal to use spotlights, lures, baits, dogs and cars to hunt them.
Ifaw's researchers say the general feeling among farmers is that the new legislation is "a big joke" and that they will continue to kill porcupines. However, even Nigrini said banning the trade might be "a blessing". "Porcupines are a great asset when it comes to poisonous bulbs, because they dig them out and eat them. If the porcupines become extinct, these poisonous bulbs would do a lot of damage to our livestock," he said.