Three elements are necessary for a crime to be committed: a willing criminal, a suitable target (property) and the absence of a competent guardian (owner). The current depopulation of rural areas in South Africa is also increasing the opportunity for crime.

The most common crimes committed in the rural areas of the country include livestock and grain theft, housebreaking and equipment theft (such as tools and batteries). Then there are farm attacks that frequently send shock waves through the country.

Victims of rural crime

The 2018 Victims of Crime report provides, among other things, figures on livestock and grain theft. According to the report, 0,77 and 0,05% of all households in South Africa suffered losses due to livestock and grain theft, respectively, during the 2017/18 financial year.

The report also mentions the type of livestock theft that took place. Goats were the most common livestock stolen with 30,6% of households affected. The number of goats stolen during the year was estimated at just over 170 000. In contrast, almost 270 000 sheep were stolen with roughly 19% of households affected.

In addition, 177 000 head of cattle were stolen from 23,8% of the households that suffered losses due to livestock theft. There were many households from which livestock were stolen more than once in the same year.

The report shows that only 29% of all theft cases were reported by the victims in the 2017/18 financial year. This means that an astounding 71% of all cases were not brought to the attention of the South African Police Service (SAPS). However, the rate of reporting improved slightly compared to the previous financial year, during which only 26% of cases were reported. The rate of livestock theft reporting is not mentioned in the 2018/19 report.

Considering the low level of reporting, the number of livestock theft cases reported to the SAPS in the 2018/19 financial year increased by 2,9% compared to the previous financial year. The number of cattle, sheep and goats stolen was 4,68, 10,89 and 12,98% higher than the previous year.

The number of animals stolen over the past few years has also increased. Between 2014/15 and 2018/19, the number of livestock theft cases increased by 18,8% and the number of animals stolen by 26,5%. Not only did the number of cases increase, but more animals were stolen per incident reported.

At provincial level, the majority of sheep were stolen in the Eastern Cape, followed by the Free State (Figure 1). The largest number of cattle was stolen in KwaZulu-Natal, followed by the Free State, Eastern Cape and Mpumalanga, with just over 10 000 head of cattle stolen in each province. The largest number of goats were stolen in KwaZulu-Natal, with the North West following close behind.

Figure 1: Stock theft numbers by province in 2018/19.

In a press release regarding the 2018/19 livestock theft statistics, the National Stock Theft Prevention Forum (NSTPF) reports that 191 head of cattle, 278 sheep and 133 goats are stolen in South Africa each day. The daily direct cost of livestock theft amounts to R3 406 435. If the animals recovered are deducted from the total, the direct cost of livestock theft comes to approximately R929 million per year, or R2,55 million per day.

Reasons for livestock theft

Probably one of the biggest reasons why livestock is targeted is the fact that a stolen animal has the same value as an animal sold directly by the owner, especially if it is marketed through the same channels. It can be compared to a car – while stolen cars are usually sold for far less than the market price, this is not the case with livestock. The big difference between livestock and cars is that cars’ proof of ownership is checked more thoroughly; this can be done through the National Traffic Information System (NaTIS), among others.

In terms of the Animal Identification Act, 2002 (Act 6 of 2002), livestock owners are required to mark their animals. In the case of cattle, they can be tattooed at the age of one month and branded at six months. Animals must be marked (tattooed or branded) by the age of six months. Cattle must be branded by the time they reach the two-tooth stage and small stock must be tattooed at the age of one month.

Identification and documentation

When livestock is purchased, the new owner has 14 days to apply his or her identification mark to the animals. Livestock can therefore be sold to another owner within 14 days of purchase, without first having to be branded or tattooed.

However, the necessary identification documents and proof must be given to the new owner. If livestock is transported or moved, a livestock removal certificate must be provided. An identification document is required in instances where livestock is traded among owners.

Traceability is essential

According to reports, fewer livestock theft cases occurred during the 2019 festive season. This is attributed to the ban on auctions and shows due to foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) during this time. This reduced the number of possible distribution points for stolen livestock. This positive effect will hopefully serve as further motivation to put the long-awaited livestock identification and traceability system for South Africa (LITS SA) in place soon.

As soon as it can be guaranteed that animals may only be sold by their legitimate owners (i.e. distribution points are strictly controlled), livestock theft numbers should decrease. However, it will require the co-operation of all role-players in the livestock industry. It will also aid the future monitoring and management of disease outbreaks, such as FMD, and its spread.

Another advantage is that such a system will allow for the negotiation of additional market access, as in the case of Namibia which, according to reports, became the first African country to export its beef to America in February this year.

Precaution at farm level

Producers who want to limit or prevent losses due to livestock theft should improve the elements they have control over. Although they cannot control willing criminals, they can take steps in relation to suitable targets and competent guardians.

Identification marks serve as a good first line of defence as they make livestock less attractive to criminals. Owners must be proactive and count their livestock daily; small stock can even be counted twice daily.

Producers should also take note of peak times – livestock theft tends to increase during the Christmas and Easter periods. The management of livestock can be intensified over these periods to make animals less susceptible to theft. –Dr WA Lombard, Department of Agricultural Economics, University of the Free State

For more information or references, contact Dr WA Lombard at For more information on the National Stock Theft Prevention Forum, contact Willie Clack at