Danger: cows ahead

2010-03-04 00:00

A HARROWING experience on a dark road in northern KwaZulu-Natal has led to a local invention that could benefit stock owners throughout southern Africa.

“I saw a bad accident on the N2 north of Hluhluwe in Zululand one night in 2006. I had parked on the side of the highway to try to move a dead cow out of the road. A second car was parked by the side of the road and I was walking towards it. A third car hit the cow and landed on the second parked car. Two people in the vehicle were killed on impact. If it had happened a few seconds later, I would have reached that parked car. I guess I am meant to be breathing still,” said Simon Morgan, a conservation ecologist in northern Zululand.

Morgan not only went on breathing, but also set about trying to find a way to do something about the danger of stray animals on the road at night, which is a familiar feature of rural life.

“Having lived and worked in rural Zululand for some time, I had already thought about designing a reflective ear tag for livestock, but the experience of that accident galvanised me. I was working as a guide at Phinda Private Game Reserve at the time and told two of the guests about the accident and my idea. Eric and Sue Simonsen from the United States supported me by donating money so that I could experiment with tagging some cows in the area with a reflective ear tag.

“What we did not know at the time was that it would take almost three years to develop a working product. This included a trial of 1 000 cattle on which the reflectors did not work. I had to go back to the drawing board again and again before we got it right.”

Morgan started off working with some companies in China to develop a product, but “got frustrated with not being there and able to oversee things, not to mention the language barrier”. He ended up finding what he needed “right here in Pietermaritzburg”. He contacted Ramsay Engineering which has been producing specialised polyurethane plastic animal tags for about 15 years. He helped design and test a new reflective component to the company’s already successful product, Tagem. The reflective element is made from material similar to that used to make reflective road signs.

“The rural environment where many cattle are kept is rough so the tags have to be very long lasting and durable. They will last for at least seven years. Like conventional tags, they have space for a name, number or code and the surface is specially designed to be written on with a permanent marker. The reflective Tagem tags are reflective on the front and back, and visible from more than 500 metres away when car headlights shine on them. To be effective they need only be visible from about 200 metres to 300 metres, which gives drivers ample time to slow down,” Morgan said.

The tags are applied using a hand-held applicator that pushes a small metal-tipped prong through the cow’s ear into a receiving section. “We apply the tags to the cattle when they are brought down to the community dip tanks. To ensure that they are applied correctly I have trained some community members and dip masters to oversee the tagging process.”

Using the last of the donated funds, Morgan recently tagged 40 Nguni cattle owned by three members of the Makhasa and Mnqobokazi communities in Zululand. “All these cattle graze near the tarred road between Hluhluwe and Sodwana Bay, which is used frequently by community members and has a high traffic load during the holiday seasons too.”

He hopes to get the tags implemented all over South Africa and has had “a very positive response” from the Department of Transport and Safety in the Eastern Cape, where stray animals on the roads are a great problem. For example, the road between Qumbu and Kokstad is regarded as a “stray animal hazardous location”. According to accident reports, at least 51 people died on this route between January 2009 and August 2009. The department runs a road safety awareness programme called Siyabakhumbula aimed at motorists, pedestrians and stock owners.

Morgan is working with a group to implement the tags throughout Botswana, which has “a huge problem with donkeys as well as cattle. We hope to get funding from government agencies and short-term insurers to support the project in Botswana.”

Asked why he is so passionate about cattle tagging, Morgan replied: “I live in rural Zululand where I am in continual contact with cattle on the road. I have seen and been involved in a number of accidents involving cattle on the road. I believe that a simple device like this will go a long way towards saving people’s lives on the road. It may even be a slightly selfish endeavour — the more cows get tagged, the safer I will feel out there.”


• To help get reflectors fitted to cows in Zululand contact Simon Morgan at cow.reflectors@gmail.com

• For Tagem tags: Ramsay Engineering +27 33 387 1575 or anderson@ramsay.co.za


Age: 30.

QUALIFICATIONS: Currently a PhD candidate in conservation ecology at UKZN.

GREW UP: Cape Town.

FAMILY: The middle child of three brothers, parents on an apple farm in Elgin, Western Cape.

NOW LIVES: On a game reserve in Zululand.

ENJOYS: The bush and wildlife.

DOESN’T ENJOY: Cows on the road.

REGRETS: Not tagging more cows sooner.

FUTURE HOPES: Seeing every rural cow that comes near a road tagged with reflectors.

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