Securing a shared future for wildlife and people

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Ben Yexley
Eyes painted on cattle in Botswana

A new eye-catching conservation initiative aims to protect African lions and livelihoods by painting intimidating eye-patterns onto cows’ behinds. Dr Neil Jordan, a joint research fellow in the Centre for Ecosystem Science at the University of New South Wales and Taronga Conservation Society Australia, will test his innovative idea in Botswana where lion predation of cattle, and retaliatory killing by farmers, is a huge issue. He believes that by tricking the big cats into thinking they have been spotted, “i-cows” can break this deadly cycle.

Lions lazing in the shade of an acacia tree in the vast African savannah is an iconic image, but less well publicised is the fact that lions are shot and poisoned in retaliation for eating livestock. Unfortunately such instances are common place across Africa, particularly along the fringes of National Parks, and this threatens the long-term survival of lions in the wild. As Dr Jordan explains, “Farmers currently have very few effective tools to prevent this devastating lion-livestock conflict. Unfortunately shooting or poisoning predators is not only used as a last resort, farmers often feel it is their only resort”. With his i-cow concept, he aims to provide local farmers with a low-cost and non-lethal tool to reduce livestock losses without having to kill lions.

On first glance, the “i-cow” idea may seem a little far-fetched, but it also has a solid grounding in animal behaviour. As ambush predators, lions rely on the element of surprise, and being seen by their prey usually prompts them to abandon their hunt. If farmers are able to trick lions into believing that they have been spotted by their intended prey, then the number of livestock killed by lions may be reduced. After all, eyespots on butterflies are well known to deter hungry birds, and even man-eating tigers have even fallen for this trick for a time, with wood cutters in the forests protecting themselves from attack by wearing masks on the backs of their heads. Until recently however, this trick has never been tried on lions, but last year Dr Jordan travelled to Botswana and, in collaboration with the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust and a local farmer on the edge of the Okavango Delta, set about painting some cows. Lions were attacking the herd every week, and the farmer was getting very desperate. Remarkably, this creative conservation response seems to be paying dividends. “Our preliminary results are really encouraging” he said. “Three unpainted cows were taken during our short pilot study, while all of our painted i-cows in the same herd survived”.

 

Despite such a promising start, the team is taking a precautionary approach. “It’s very important that we avoid selling desperate farmers false hope, and so we really need to confirm that i-cows are actually effective before we present it to farmers as a solution”. Ultimately the tool will be low cost, but thoroughly testing the technique requires the team to fit lions and cows with GPS-collars to properly measure predation risk and prey selection. To achieve this, the team has launched a small crowd-funding campaign on experiment.com, and is calling for more backers. As Jordan puts it, “What we’re trying to do here, with crowd-funding support, is provide farmers with what they desperately need; a sustainable, non-lethal, low-cost solution to lion-livestock conflict”. Do the ‘eyes’ have it? Only time will tell.

 

To back this innovative conservation project visit https://experiment.com/projects/i-cows-can-intimidating-eye-patterns-painted-onto-cows-reduce-lion-attacks