The Big Cats Initiative Grants Program seeks to identify and support projects that engage in immediate actions leading to reductions in big cat mortality. BCI Grantees often provide updates from the field, and we love sharing them with you. BCI Grantee Florian Weise provides this dispatch from the field.
By Florian J. Weise, Head researcher at N/a’an ku sê Foundation
With the winter calving season in full flight in Namibia, conflicts with free-ranging large felids such as cheetahs and leopards can be expected to reach top levels again. The farming properties in the country cover vast areas of bush savannah where livestock and wildlife co-exist and predators roam freely. On these large farms effective protection of vulnerable young cattle and other livestock often becomes problematic in practical terms. It is a fact that some, although not many, large carnivores will occasionally predate on unprotected livestock. In the past this often resulted in indiscriminate captures of cheetahs and leopards as well as retaliatory killings of these animals. These conflicts need to be addressed and mitigated for the benefit of the farmers but also to increase tolerance of large cats that maintain a wildlife diet. Most Namibian farmers are willing to share their land with these iconic felids as long as livestock losses remain within economically acceptable thresholds.
In 2008, the large carnivore researchers of N/a’an ku sê Foundation started working with farmers to identify practical and cost-effective protection measures to help reduce conflicts and losses. Since then, the team has directly worked with more than 130 Namibian landowners. Farm properties are visited upon request and livestock husbandry as well as large carnivore management techniques are assessed on site. During these consultancies the testing and subsequent implementation of a variety of traditional and modern protective measures are discussed and often put into practice right away. The results can be astounding.
Many farmers have managed to reduce stock depredation immediately by up to 88% merely by “locking away” their young cattle behind thick walls of thorn bush during the night. Thorn bushes don’t cost anything but are very effective in preventing the cats access to young cattle, and especially so during the late evening and early morning hours when cattle are unguarded and predation usually occurs. Farmers also report that using indigenous African cattle breeds like Nguni makes a difference because these races still carry horns and mother cows have much stronger instincts of protecting their young against predators.
During the day, the presence of a guard dog, a herder or a guardian donkey works best as the felids avoid areas of intense activity or disturbance. Young dogs and donkeys can be bonded with individual livestock herds and eventually “adopt” the newborn and protect them against any intruder, sometimes even the farmers themselves. The use of a guardian donkey is more applicable to cattle herds rather than small stock, and often proves more cost-effective than a dog as the donkey doesn’t require special training, supervision or supplementary feeding.
More recently, the researchers have also begun using so-called bio-boundaries to temporarily repel cheetahs and leopards from calving grounds and thus reduce conflict risks. This involves finding locations of frequent carnivore activity such as leopard caves and cheetah marking trees in the vicinity of these areas. The team then places fresh lion scat (which is sourced from captive animals) at the activity spots to simulate the presence of a larger, dangerous predator. Lions used to co-exist with cheetahs and leopards on farmlands but are known to kill other predators to reduce competition where these species overlap. Cheetahs and leopards therefore have an instinct of avoiding areas of lion activity or simulated activity. So far, this new technique has been very successful and no calves have been killed in areas where lion scat was used as a repellent.
On selected farms, the researchers also systematically capture cheetahs and leopards and fit them with GPS tracking collars. The movements of the cats are then monitored intensively on a daily basis to examine which individuals frequently utilize calving areas or were located near a livestock kill. This helps to objectively determine the exact animal involved in stock depredation which can then be captured selectively and removed from the farm. At the same time, however, GPS monitoring also provides robust evidence that not all large carnivores are responsible for livestock predation. Landowners are generally very tolerant of cheetahs and leopards that have been proven “innocent” of stock depredation and they are left unharmed in their breeding habitat to maintain free-ranging populations.
The translocation of a suspected or confirmed stock raiding predator is only used as a last resort because often there’s simply not enough strong evidence that the animal has actually been involved in stock depredation. Also, continued removal of large carnivores from their native habitat cannot be the answer. The success of using such translocations as a reactive management tool to livestock killings is carefully assessed by the research team and contrary to most other studies on this subject there are strong indications that the technique can work to help alleviate conflicts in selected situations. In partnership with the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative and Duke University, the researchers are now analyzing monitoring information gathered from 30 translocated cheetahs and leopards and this study will be published in 2013.
Nonetheless, the main focus of N/a’an ku sê’s work remains on preventing conflict with farmers rather than reacting to problems. Combinations of different livestock protection methods have already delivered encouraging results and reduced the numbers of cheetahs and leopards killed on partner farms. The ultimate aim must be to increase tolerance of large carnivores in their natural habitats, and if that happens to be commercial farmland, effective and economical protection measures need to be implemented that reduce the costs that farmers incur from living with large carnivores. The BCI has been N/a’an ku sê’s main supporter of this important field work in 2012.