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When Predators & Farmers Collide : Botswana

courtesy of Google Maps

These people work hard out here; the conservationists, the farmers, everyone.  The hot days of October dictate an early rise to reach the far-flung locations that entail research, data gathering and community outreach.

I’m in the central Kalahari region, just outside the town of Ghanzi in Botswana.  It’s hot, like… Africa hot… as the cliché goes.  Cheetah Conservation Botswana (CCB) has a camp here where a small permanent staff of six and two volunteers reside, as well as the giant guard dog, Murphy, and Cat, a small orange house cat with a taste for murdering smaller creatures.

Murphy after a roll in the mud on a hot day

In the night, jackals can be heard and Murphy sets to barking his head off and growling at them.  The jackal population has increased dramatically according to local Afrikaner farmers and as a result they are suffering losses of small livestock; sheep and goat.  This brings them into direct conflict with the predators in the region.  If they hunt the jackal, it could trigger a crisis in the pack and thus they will breed even more.  So what are they supposed to do protect their flocks from intense losses?

CCB Researcher, Jane Horgan is working on just this issue.  Livestock dogs such as our Murphy, an Anatolian Shepherd, local Botswana mix breeds and greyhound mixes are being tested at CCB Ghanzi camp and elsewhere as to their effectiveness in this particular climate of dry, intense heat.

Today, I’m in the car with Jane.  We’re in the ever-sturdy Toyota Hilux taking us over the bumpiest roads I’ve ever experienced.

 

Driving through dust and fences

 

Being in the passenger seat means that I’m on fence duty.  We’re in farmland, game farms and livestock farms and that means gates and lots of ‘em.  I open and close nearly a dozen gates throughout the day.  Some farmers work with CCB, allowing them to study play trees on their land, collect scat and set camera traps to analyze the cheetah population and its integral part in the ecosystem.

We are checking “play trees” on the Flattery’s farm, the term given to trees with low branches that cheetah love to scratch-mark, spray and hang about.  There is scat to collect and batteries in the motion sensor cameras to change.  A lot of cheetah are in the area, as evidenced by fresh scat and lots of fabulous self-portraits on the cameras.  I may as well retire as a photographer, the cheetah do it all on they’re own with compositional style and finesse.

 

image on loan from Cheetah Conservation Botswana

 

As we finish with the last marking tree, we drive past the main farmhouse where brothers Melcomb and Quinton are sitting under a shady umbrella having a rest.  We get out to chat and catch up.  The farmhouse is a lovely set of small buildings, gardens and cages with exotic birds, a few meerkats, three exuberant dogs ,and somewhere lurking about is a pet mongoose.

Melcomb and Quinton kindly agree to a video interview and go into great detail about their relationship with the predators on their land.

Melcomb & Quinton on the quad bike in search of the sheep carcass.

As we talk, Quinton looks over my head and into the distance.  Then Melcomb does the same.  What is it?  Vulture.  Seconds later, more vultures circling in the distant sky.  They know something is up, their sheep are in that direction.  Quinton sets off on the quad bike to have a look.  Minutes later he radios his brother, a sheep has been killed.

Jane and I jump in the truck and follow the brothers into the bush to find the sheep.

After a few minutes of looking around in the thick bush, the unmistakable sound of thousands of swarming flies lead us to a ravaged sheep carcass.  Although it is a fresh kill from that morning, there is not much left of it.  Quinton says it’s the work of three jackals that killed another sheep just days before.  Jane, Melcomb and Quinton point out the tell-tale signs of a jackal kill, specific bite marks and methods of taking down prey. An air of resignation takes hold of the scene.

 

taking a look at the evidence

 

I ask Melcomb if he will hunt the jackals.  “Yes”, he answers.  Quinton throws the carcass into a nearby tree so the hyenas can’t get to it (and come back looking for more, thereby creating a bigger problem).

What was a fairly relaxed chat about human-predator relations turned into a visceral example of the harsh realities of being a farmer in Botswana. But there are solutions that can mitigate losses.  Namely, livestock dogs for smaller animals such as goats, sheep and calves. Melcomb, Quinton and Jane talk in earnest about getting a dog to guard the sheep.  With more jackals in the area, there are more mouths to feed.  It’s important to take a stronger action.  I’m new to this topic, listen with an open mind and wonder about the efforts of hunting and energy expended, considering all the work basic farming involves vs. livestock guard dog solutions.

The Flatterys have been working this land for three generations and they are curious about new methods, but they also have a farm to run and new methods take time.  Building strong relationships with the farmers, who already allow CCB to set up motion capture cameras on play trees in their area, is a key factor.

 

Murphy in the bush at sunset

 

We return to the shady spot under the umbrella, have a slice of cake and a soda, play with the pet mongoose and chat about wildlife and old stories of the days when the water table was higher, there were no fences, when the cattle’s drives were on horseback, before setting off to return to cheetah camp.

More on livestock guard dogs in Namibia and South Africa coming soon…

all images & video Marcy Mendelson © 2012 / Cheetah-Watch.com