by Claudia Carter
The news of endangered species, extinctions and near extinctions seems hardly to bat many eyelids or feature in news channels. Unless it is a species which seems to strike a chord or has some sort of direct meaning. And here, the cheetah features.
For me, living in England, and not a great fan of caged animals / zoos, thinking about cheetahs was triggered about a year ago when I received an email from Rosie Wilkes who works at the West Midland Safari Park and in her spare time helps raise awareness and support for Cheetah Outreach. Not teaching biology or environmental conservation as such I thought what on earth does this have to do with my modules, amongst it ‘Complexity, Conflict and Resolution’ for the MSc Environmental Sustainability which focuses on environmental governance and conflict resolution. As it turned out, much more than I had anticipated.
So Rosie came with Cyril Stannard to BCU who gave a seminar about his work in South Africa to help the survival of the free-ranging Southern African cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus). While the remit of Cheetah Outreach encompasses environmental education, advocacy of the elimination of illegal trade, and research from captive cheetahs / field-based studies, the focus for the talk was on their fourth key area: the reduction of wildlife-human conflict through applied and effective in situ strategies.
Predator-farmer conflict in Southern Africa
For about 35 minutes Cyril led us into a part of the world unfamiliar to us, yet the underlying issues were spot on what we had been discussing in class in terms of environmental and ecological management challenges, conflict of interests, ignorance (lack of knowledge, understanding or simply a narrow way of thinking) and scoping methods and approaches to resolve conflict. So here is a snapshot of what Cyril, the Livestock Guarding Dog Programme manager, had to say.
Cyril’s range covers a huge area in North-West Province, working with farmers and game breeders who experience livestock and financial losses through cheetahs and other predators such as spotted hyenas and African painted dogs. North West Province covers nearly 105,000 km2 with only 6.4 per cent (about 6.700 km2) being formally designated conservation area (such as national park games reserves). Over half of the land (nearly 60,000 km2) is farmland used for grazing sheep, goat and cattle, and more recently game breeding and wildlife ranches have become hugely profitable businesses (for example, a black impala ram can fetch £2,000-9,000, compared with a normal impala ram around £70). The annual financial loss from predation to the wool industry alone is estimated to be around ZAR110 million (about £6.7 million), the total damages are estimated to be about 10times that.
With the global hunger for meat-based protein still rising, and trophy-hunting constituting a highly profitable business, the conflict between wild carnivores and farmed / bred animals is likely to get worse. Understandably, farmers will protect their livestock and livelihoods, be it to the “best or worst of their abilities” as Cyril put it. Repeated attacks by wild animals can make farmers very angry and wishing to kill wildlife. Many resort to hunting/shooting and using inhumane predator control such as gin traps, cage traps, wire snares or poison; also humane predator control solutions have become a new booming industry offering solutions that often only work for a short time (e.g. special collars, marking with urine or noise-based systems) or are very expensive (e.g. predator proof fencing which also can cause secondary impacts such as overgrazing and soil erosion). Relocation is also costly and impractical as who wants, or which area actually can, accommodate more cheetahs?
Hopeless? Or help at hand!
What seems at first sight a hopeless situation, turns out to have a ‘silver lining’. Trials with using guard dogs to protect livestock herds, show encouraging success. The guard dogs need to be attentive, trustworthy and protective and also able to withstand great heat (around 40 degrees Celcius). Trials that started in 2005 involve an Anatolian breed of shepherd dog and a smaller indigenous breed, called Malutis, from Lesotho. They are both good living guardians, with the native Malutis used for smaller predators and the bigger Anatolians, their weight matching more or less most of the predators, used in most instances even though they lack some of the advantages (in terms of climatic/ecological adaptation) of native breeds. Bigger predators don’t tend to risk getting hurt as this would impact on their ability to hunt, so installing 1-2 dogs per livestock herd has worked well. As of December 2016, about 250 dogs have been placed, with just over half of them still working, 41% dying in service, 4% retired and 2% having moved out of range. The cause of death is mainly through snake bites; a snake aversion programme has therefore been implemented that is around 80% successful.
Dogs are given to the farmers for free (supported through generous funding from organisations, not the government) after they have been guided in their natural instinct to protect and guard, rather than hunt (which is a relatively low instinct in this breed). Most of Cyril’s time is spent in getting farmers on board to abandon inhumane and other environmentally dodgy practices and to support the efficient working of placed dogs. Thus farmers seeing and hearing about these guard dogs in action over time develop trust in and join the scheme. The guard dogs are essentially loaned to the farmer in return for the agreeing not to use measures that endanger or kill cheetahs / predators. After a year, if the arrangement works well, the ownership and responsibility for the livestock guarding dog (LDG) is transferred to the farmer even though the Cheetah Outreach Trust is always there to help if needed. The aim is to develop a LDG culture where farmers will pay for and source their own dogs and utilise them correctly. Under the current arrangement and this future scenario, the cheetahs can still roam the (farm)land and hunt wild prey while livestock are largely protected.
This livestock guarding dog programme run by the Cheetah Outreach Trust has some impressive statistics. In most cases the livestock guard dogs reduce predation by 90-100%! However, this is just one specific programme run in South Africa to try and educate, support and research conservation management. While providing some very positive news for this area, other areas and cheetah populations are not so lucky.
Not all are so lucky
Recently, a news item flashed up globally about cheetahs being highly vulnerable to extinction[i]. Asiatic and African populations have been hit hard in the past decade or so. For example, in Zimbabwe, numbers have dropped by 85% in just 16 years (from 1,200 to 170 animals). Wild cheetahs have to contend surviving in less than a tenth of their past territory, yet it is a space demanding species and in addition to losing ground also faces a range of other threats, including hunting and illegal trafficking of cheetah body parts. Research, as for example conducted by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) indicate that more than habitat protection is required; we need to think and work more on the successful co-existence of humans and wildlife.
With actions and organisations such as the Cheetah Outreach (www.cheetah.co.za), there is some hope for the world’s fastest land animal being able to survive and sprint into the future.
Watch out for fund-raising activities in the CEBE open plan office this spring. The total cost of training a guard dog puppy from around 6 weeks old to 1 year is around ZAR 16,000 / £800-1,000 including food, medicines and vet costs. A dog can be ‘adopted’ for ZAR 5,000, about £250-300 depending on exchange rates, to help with funding the scheme. More information and sponsorship details are available at the Cheetah Outreach website www.cheetah.co.za.
[i] Press Association (2016) Cheetah ‘more vulnerable to extinction than previously thought’. The Guardian online 27 December 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/dec/27/cheetah-more-vulnerable-to-extinction-than-previously-thought?CMP=twt_gu
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Cyril Stannard and Rosie Wilkes for offering and delivering the talk to BCU students on the Masters in Environmental Sustainability course and for checking a draft of the blog and providing updated data / stats.