10 18/10/2011

Conservation with Thorn Bushes, Lion Poo and Guard Donkeys

Conflict between farmers and cheetahs in Namibia is being mitigated in an unusual way – thanks to the deployment of thorn bushes, lion faeces and guard donkeys.

Cattle farmers around the N/a'an ku sê sanctuary in the north of the country have frequently lost calves during the calving season, due to predation from the large number of free-ranging cheetahs and leopards.

In some cases this has amounted to yearly financial losses of up to £20,000 and so, to protect their livelihoods, many farmers started trapping and killing cheetahs in retaliation.

However, as Scott Wilson, Conservation Officer at Chester Zoo explains, this has failed to solve the problem:

“Indiscriminately killing cheetahs and leopards disrupts the large carnivore ecology, which often does nothing but bring in more large predators from adjacent territories and actually accelerates the problem in the end.

“So we’ve supplied Researchers at the N/a'an ku sê sanctuary with some GPS tracking collars, which they fitted to key cheetahs in order to track their movements and behaviour and help come up with an effective solution.”

Measuring Cheetah Muzzle - Chester Zoo

Florian Weise, a Researcher at the sanctuary in Namibia, says the collars have provided some interesting information:

“The data we collected highlighted three large carnivores as being real problems in terms of livestock predation - a coalition of two cheetah brothers and one male leopard. We therefore moved these to a distant conservation zone.

“But what the collars also helped show, was that most big cats would only very occasionally take a calf and so no real predation or hunting patterns were obvious with any others. This meant that further translocations were not necessary and, upon presentation of this data, the farmers agreed.

“So I then began to look for ways to benefit both the farmers and the resident predators.”

Following extensive research and talks with fellow experts, a strategy was drawn up to trial three cheetah deterrents – the first being the use of ‘guard’ donkeys.

Mr Weise said: “Normally, when I approach farmers with these ideas for the first time they look at me as if I am completely nuts.

“But guard dogs have been employed for small livestock like sheep and goats in Namibia for a long time, only they don’t seem to be able to protect large cattle herds against cheetahs. Somebody tested a donkey instead and it worked like a charm.”

The idea is simple. A pregnant donkey is introduced into the cattle herd to be protected and the foal will grow up with the calves and bond with them.

The donkey, because of its acute senses and natural aggression, will then chase and attack any predator that it notices too close to its ‘buddy’ cows.

Guard donkeys in Namibia

Mr Weise added: “You cannot train a donkey for this purpose and some work much better than others. You can only have one donkey per herd as otherwise the donkeys will ignore the cows. And you can only use females as stallions have been known to injure or even kill calves when they chase them in play.

"Finally, herd sizes should not exceed 100 cows and the area should not be too big, as otherwise the donkey cannot keep control of the situation.

“But, get yourself a good donkey and all of this right and you’ve got a very useful deterrent.”

In the early 1900s, farmers eradicated the likes of lions, wild dogs and spotted hyenas from the region - completely altering the carnivore society in favour of the cheetahs and leopards, who effectively became the top carnivores.

However, as cheetahs and leopards are naturally inferior to such species they have instincts to avoid these larger predators.

And so a second method, utilising lion faeces to keep cheetahs away, is also being trialled.

Mr Weise said: “Watering down lion faeces and letting it ferment in the sun creates a particularly pungent odour.

“Two weeks before the first calves of the season are born, we start spreading the liquefied lion poo along fence lines and at known locations of carnivore activity - for example cheetah marking trees, points where they normally cross fences, leopard caves and riverbeds where they roam.

“We’ve applied the faeces over three calving seasons now and have only seen very minimal losses and I know for a fact that it has repelled cheetahs that have come in to calving areas.”

Leopard in Namibia

Finally, a third element draws on thorn bushes.

“Predators hate thick thorn bush and won’t go through it. So we’ve started building thorn bush paddocks in the calving areas into which the calves are herded at night, the time when they are most susceptible to attacks,” added Mr Weise.

“We’ve only done this with two calving herds so far but we haven’t lost a single calf from those herds.”

Overall Mr Weise is pleased with the findings and believes the three-pronged defence tactics are proving to be very effective.

“Our success in reducing calf losses cannot be put down to a single technique and my belief is the combination of techniques does the trick,” he said.

“The farmers really appreciate the effort and are much more likely to tolerate large predators on their land now. Last year was the first year in a long time that not a single cheetah or leopard had to be removed from the study area.”