Thursday, January 8, 2015

Herding Dogs Mitigate Human-Cheetah Conflict in Namibia

This post is about a great human-wildlife conflict resolution program started by Dr. Laurie Marker over 20 years ago in Namibia. Read on for some background about human-cheetah conflict in Namibia and how Livestock Guarding Dogs are making a difference in the lives of both local farmers and cheetahs alike.



Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) are the fastest land animal, with the ability to accelerate from 0 to 60mph in 3 seconds. They're built for speed and hunting, and most of their defining characteristics revolve around this. They have long legs that terminate with semi-retractable claws, a trait that helps them grip the ground and make sharp turns. Long, flat tails to aid with turns and balance, and dark "tear marks" to prevent glare from the sun while hunting in the bright light. According to 2013 research, the ticket to the cheetah's predatory success is it's ability to turn and maneuver while hunting. This allows them to hunt some of the fastest prey on land. However, these specializations come at a price, and the cheetah, with its small teeth and weak jaw, is poorly equipped to defend itself against other large predators. Another unfortunate fact about cheetahs is that they have low genetic diversity. This is due to the majority of the population dying off 12,000 years ago, leaving them with strange recessive characteristics, such as most cheetahs having kinked tails, and a susceptibility to the same diseases.

Claws and Paws
A view of their semi-retractable claws. Source: Cheetah Spot
There are between 7,500 and 10,000 cheetahs worldwide. They've disappeared from 75% of their historic range, and over the last century their population has decreased by 90%, making their conservation imperative. Currently their IUCN status is Vulnerable and their largest population is found in Namibia, with a number hovering around 3,000, putting focus on the country as a hot spot for cheetah conservation. Unfortunately, in Namibia over 90% of the resident cheetahs don't live in protected areas, but on livestock farmland, putting them in direct contact with one of their largest threats, farmers.

The Problem:

Their presence outside of protected areas is a problem for both the cats and local farmers. Cheetahs will prey on small livestock to supplement their diets when wild prey is not available, which angers local farmers greatly. Many of these farmers are poor and cannot afford the losses to the Cheetahs, leading them to retaliate. This retaliation can come in the form of trapping, shooting, or poisoning the offending cheetah.  The end result: whenever a cheetah kills livestock, both the cheetah and the farmer suffer.

A Solution:


The Cheetah Conservation Fund was started by Dr. Laurie Marker with the purpose of researching the cheetah, educating the Namibian people about cheetahs, and finding effective ways to protect the population. One of the programs they started is called the Livestock Guarding Dog Program. This program is penultimate in terms of human-wildlife conflict mitigation because it protects livestock and cheetahs without disturbing the ecosystem or anyone involved by using the natural instincts of the animals. 

A livestock guarding dog at work. Source: Cheetah Conservation Fund
Cheetahs are skittish animals that will flee at the sight of a human or other threatening animal, including herding dogs. The guarding dog program uses this to their advantage by employing herding dogs that traditionally protect livestock against wolves, and instead using them to chase off cheetahs from farms before they can prey on any livestock. The dogs used for this purpose are the Anatolian Shepherd and Kangal, both herding dogs from Turkey with thousands of years of herding instincts bred right into them. 

The program supplies the dogs to the farmers as puppies, where they are raised with their flock 24 hours a day without much human intervention, allowing them to bond. As the puppies grow into a big, scary herding dogs they naturally protects their herds. They head out with their herds during the day and sleep with them at night, faithfully following them around ensuring their safety. Usually a bark is enough to scare off a hungry cheetah, but the dogs will also fight the predators if need be. However, the program doesn't just give the dogs away willy-nilly, they visit the farms to make sure the conditions will be good for the dog, if that checks out the farmers are invited to Puppy Day to take a puppy back to their farm, and will further be checked on to make sure the dog and the farmers are happy with the arrangement. 

Since 1994 the program has placed over 500 dogs with farmers which has resulted in a 80-100% decrease in livestock losses by the farmers in the program! There is currently a two-year waiting list to get a dog, and the program has expanded to other African countries, though I can't find a list of which ones. 

Make no mistake, conflict with cheetahs is not is completely solved. Conservation efforts are less intense in many other countries; even within Namibia not everyone has a guardian dog, and even farmers that do occasionally suffer livestock kills. But the situation is greatly improved and should continue to improve once more dogs are deployed and new mitigation methods are devised. Other mitigation methods are also currently used, such as reinforcement of livestock inclosures, locking livestock up at night, as well as different animals being used to guard livestock, such as donkeys.

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