A Case of Contagious Conflict [Research]


1. What is the Problem and Why Should You Care?

While there are numerous methods to conserve the cheetah in Africa, a highly respected non-profit organization known as the Cheetah Outreach Trust relies on man’s best friend and farmers who are the custodians of the land to do so. But before explaining how a charismatic breed of dog and willing tolerant farmers can save the lives’ of these big cats, it is important to first briefly understand why the cheetah is in danger and who is involved.

2. The problem…

In the northern regions of South Africa, livestock farmers use their private lands as grazing habitat for their livestock (usually sheep, goats, or other small farm species). These farmers rely on the land to provide their livestock with food to survive, which in turn provides the landowners with financial stability. Additionally, cheetahs and other wildlife depend on the same land to provide them with the vital ecosystem processes necessary to live. However, as farmers’ financial demands require the expansion of land for livestock and game farming, cheetahs are continually coming into closer contact with their valuable and easily preyed upon livestock and intensively managed game populations.

This creates a perceived human-carnivore conflict – as the potential for livestock loss due to predation jeopardizes the financial well being of African farmers.

3. Why Should You Care?

While different types of human-carnivore conflicts exist worldwide, much of the future of the cheetah in Africa depends upon the preservation and mitigation strategies used by non-profits such as the Cheetah Outreach Trust (COT). The COT uses educational, scientifically proven, and in-situ tools to identify effective ways of reducing the occurrence of cheetah-livestock encounters. In addition to reducing livestock attack rates, the COT also strives to prevent lethal retaliation by farmers towards cheetahs (and other farmland predator species), thereby increasing the surrounding communities’ social perception and tolerance of the animal. The COT provides educational outreaches using ambassador cheetahs at their headquarters in the Western Cape of South Africa, as well as giving presentations, workshops and research findings to local farming communities to inform all relevant stakeholders of the cheetah’s importance.

Additionally, changing social perceptions of cheetahs can be done by providing farmers with alternate sources of income other than livestock, educating youth locally, regionally and worldwide on the value of cheetahs within their ecosystems, and through the creation of incentive schemes encouraging farmers to end lethal predator retaliation. Spreading awareness of the knowledge gained during research carried out by the COT and other scientists is also important. For example, as stated by the COT, cheetahs are actually responsible for only about 3% of perceived livestock losses occurring on farms. Realizing this, it is crucial that further awareness is brought to this statistic and that further consideration is given on ways to reduce livestock attacks overall.

Despite this knowledge, many livestock owners continue to shoot, poison, trap, and illegally sell cheetahs believing that lethal retaliation will reduce livestock attack rates. However, the unnecessary killing of cheetahs through shooting, trapping and poisoning does not always remove the “problem” animal and can cause unneeded harm to other species within the same ecosystem. For example, it is estimated that for every attempt to trap a specific animal, another 20 non-target species are harmed in the process. From this, it is possible that another predator species or perhaps a smaller animal could become accidentally trapped in a snare placed by farmers aimed at catching a larger predator. Among this danger, there are many other potentially harmful situations created when farmers choose to use lethal predator controls. Realizing that there are only about 500 free ranging cheetahs left in South Africa, it is vitally important that new methods of informing farmers and preventing livestock losses are identified. These methods must be sustainable, effective, and financially affordable for farmers and surrounding communities alike.

Additionally, individuals like you and non-profits such as the Cheetah Outreach Trust must continue to educate local and global communities on ways to sustainably coexist with the planet’s beautiful carnivore species. Together we share this planet and together we can work together to inform, educate, and research ways to better our relationship with all wildlife.

4. Work of the Cheetah Outreach Trust

Beginning in 2005, the COT began the Livestock Guarding Dog program (LGD) on South African farmlands. During this time, farmers were given guard dogs that instinctively guard and stay close to their herds, protecting them from predators. After four years of continued livestock dog guarding success, the COT began its own guard dog-breeding program. Specifically, the Turkish Anatolian Shepherd (and Lesotho Maluti breed in a more recent pilot scheme) were chosen for the program due to their attentive, protective, and trustworthy nature. Since the initiation of the LGD program six years ago, the COT has saved farmers an annual $3,189.00 per farm in livestock losses (Rust et al., 2013). Additionally, not only have 100% of livestock predations on 91% of participating farms been reduced by guarding dogs (Rust et al., 2013), cheetahs have also been able to more safely coexist and traverse through areas near to farmlands.

Interestingly, the same breeds of guard dogs have also been used in other countries to protect livestock from various carnivore species. However, their effectiveness in cheetah conservation has proved impressive and extremely valuable towards conservation efforts. Currently, the LGD program provides farmers with pups at the early age of 6-8 weeks. The guard dog pups quickly and instinctively bond with the farmer’s herds and handle themselves independently in the field. After placement, field officers of the COT consistently visit and monitor the pups to ensure that their guardian instincts are developing adequately and that they are efficiently serving their duties as they grow.

Amazingly, the guard dogs do not require training to protect the herds and naturally create a bond with the farmer’s livestock, which leads to their outstanding protective abilities. Because of this, over 240 Livestock Guarding Dogs have now been placed on farmlands in northern South Africa, in border areas with Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe by the COT. Many guard dogs do, however, receive basic training teaching them to avoid interaction with snakes and other potentially dangerous animals once they are old enough.

Due to the desire of cheetahs to avoid areas frequented by guard dogs, the COT has also discovered that strategic placement of the LGDs in clusters can encourage migration of cheetah populations. Using this idea, the COT can create viable habitat corridors allowing the movement of cheetahs away from livestock and with the opportunity to cross borders into Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. This strategic placement of LGDs and the resulting movement of cheetahs can help to reduce problematic genetic isolation and increase genetic diversity of the already small cheetah population.

Additionally, farmers who choose to participate in the LGD program pledge to cease all poisoning, shooting, and trapping of cheetahs and all farmland species. By providing farmers with LGDs, their tolerance of predators can increase over time. This change in the perception of cheetahs can also prevent other animals from negatively being influenced by famers’ otherwise harmful actions. For example, animals at different trophic levels sharing the same ecosystem as cheetahs depend on one another for the continued provision of ecosystem processes. As farmers continue to join the program, increases in persecution-free farmland will thus support the safe movement of cheetahs, their livelihood, and indirectly the protection and sustainment of other species as well.

Overtime, the COT desires to continue enhancing farmers’ and the general public’s perceptions of cheetahs through an emerging livestock guarding dog culture. This will require the continual education of South Africa’s youth as well as on-going research focused on the effectiveness of livestock guarding dogs. The COT also desires to establish a sustainable and economically beneficial ecotourism program for communities in South Africa using cheetah ambassadors. As the third most biodiverse country in the world, creating a sustainable and reliable ecotourism business has the potential to help both wildlife and communities in South Africa. As the people of South Africa become aware of the monetary value ecotourism can have, their perceptions of cheetahs and other wildlife as “harmful” can be altered. Instead, they will be encouraged to coexist with the animals and perceive them as financial assets to the region, if not already for their intrinsic value.

5. And You…

However, while the COT continues to grow the LGD program and culture, the need to educate populations around the world about the importance of predators in all ecosystem remains. While you might be thinking you aren’t capable of doing anything about this particular human-carnivore conflict – you absolutely are. Just by reading this you have chosen to engage in educating yourself about the issue, which is the beginning of change. Whether you choose to discuss this issue further with others or simply keep it to yourself, you have chosen to take the time to learn about a serious conservation issue outside of immediate boundaries. In addition, through the spread of knowledge regarding the cheetah-livestock issue, it is possible that increased international pressure can and will be eventually placed on farmers and livestock owners to end all lethal carnivore retaliation.

As defined by the Theory of Change Metrics, it is possible that an increase in your knowledge of such conservation issues can change your attitude, increase your desire to know more about what is happening with cheetah preservation, reduce your inability to understand how to get involved, and inspire you overall to become more aware and active in learning. Applied on a larger scale, if this same process occurs across greater expanses of individuals, human-carnivore conflicts worldwide will grow in their ability to be researched and mitigated for through public support and non-lethal mitigation.

While this is not a small task and will require the effort, understanding, and acceptance of all stakeholders involved, it is crucial that the cheetahs are given the chance they deserve. You can assist the efforts of the Cheetah Outreach Trust’s LGD program, help them to encourage farmland biodiversity, and assist in protecting the existing populations of cheetahs by remaining in the know.

As one of the highest recognized non-profit organizations in Africa, the COT also spends time in classrooms with impoverished youth and other members of the community educating them on the importance of respecting all environments. Like the COT, you too can do your part by sharing the knowledge you have gained regarding the cheetah-livestock conflict with those around you and by considering how your actions can be indirectly and/or directly be harmful to local wildlife.

Overall, it is the COT’s hope that individuals like you will remain engaged as they work to sustain cheetah populations, mitigate for livestock losses, and create an economically sustainable and wildlife friendly culture in South Africa.

To find out more, inquire about visiting the COT, or learn about other ways to get involved – email the Cheetah Outreach Trust at cheetah@intekom.co.za.

If you wish to make a donation to the Cheetah Outreach Trust or adopt a working Anatolian Shepherd or Maluti Livestock Guarding Dog – email events@cheetah.co.za.

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