• Alex Taylor

Guard Dogs and Cats

Updated: Aug 11, 2019

Cheetahs aren't protected in protected areas. Competition from lions and hyenas forces them out, onto livestock farmland and straight into conflict with humans. But their arch enemies, dogs, are coming to their rescue and protecting them from the wrath of farmers.

Cheetahs sheltering in the Masai Mara (photo by me)

Cheetahs are a quintessential African mammal, racing across the plains at speeds reaching 100 km per hour. But this was not always the case - they were once found worldwide. Before the end of the last ice age, around 11,700 years ago, they were common throughout North America, Asia and Europe. In 1900, numbers had reduced but around 100,000 remained in Africa, throughout the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula, all the way to India. Now, they are nearly extinct in Asia, with just a few dozen left in northeastern Iran. In Africa, there an estimated 9,000 to 12,000 cheetahs. They have experienced size reductions (called genetic bottlenecks) that have left them with low genetic diversity and highly inbred.

Habitat loss and poaching are taking their toll. Sadly for cheetahs, protected reserves are not a safe haven for them. There, there be lions and hyenas, and they are not the cheetah’s friend. They compete with them and have been known to steal their kills. To avoid this competition, the vast majority of cheetahs are found outside protected areas, on livestock farmland, where they come into trouble with farmers.

Cheetahs prefer the wild prey species they are familiar with and evolved alongside. But poaching means that there is little of that left. This leads to cheetahs turning to livestock, when they become desperately hungry, they spot a lame or sick animal, or if the livestock is not corralled or protected by the herder.

It’s this that is the key to saving cheetahs. If the livestock is protected, the predators have less chance to kill them, and conflict with humans is reduced so they don’t kill cheetahs in retaliation. Conservationists have found a novel way of doing just this - by providing farmers with guard dogs.

There are over 20 breeds of guarding dogs, mostly from Europe, which have been used to guard livestock for thousands of years. They live with the herd, grow up with them so are well bonded to the animals, and protect them from any predator that becomes interested in the herd by barking loudly at them to scare them away. The Cheetah Conservation Fund have been using Anatolian Shepherds and Kangals from Turkey since 1994 to protect livestock from cheetahs in Namibia. These big dogs (weighing up to 150 lbs) were bred and raised at the organisation’s headquarters and have so far proved to be a very successful deterrent.

Around 600 dogs have been placed with livestock farmers, who also receive training in livestock and wildlife management techniques and are encouraged to co-exist with the cheetahs instead of removing them. Between 80-100% of the farmers involved with the programme have reported a decrease in livestock loss by cheetahs and other predators, thanks to the dogs. It has been so successful that there is a long waiting list for the dogs.

A programme in South Africa has also demonstrated the dogs’ effectiveness. Ninety-seven Anatolian Shepherds were placed with farmers between 2005 and 2011. Overall, livestock losses were reduced by an average of 98% and were eliminated completely from 66 of the 70 farms in the study. Previously, predators killed between 2 and 50 percent of each farm’s animals, but with the dogs this figure dropped to 0-2%.

The farmers saved $3,200 per year, and they reported that the number of cheetahs increased and that they felt more tolerance towards them. I confess, I don’t always feel much sympathy towards anyone who kills a wild animal. But African farmers do have it tough, with long days doing back-breaking work for not much reward. The loss of even one member of their herd can seriously impact their livelihoods. The use of man’s best friend seems like an ideal solution to resolve the conflict and is a win-win for cheetahs - not only are fewer killed by farmers, the farmers themselves are more supportive of their protection.

Humans have a long association with cheetahs, since at least 3000 BCE when they were a symbol of royalty in Egypt. They were even kept as pets by such famous historical figures as Genghis Khan and Charlemagne. Its time to improve our relationship with all predators, not just cheetahs, and find ways to live with them. And from Africa the lesson is clear - instead of reaching for guns, turn to guard dogs.

#cheetah #bigcats #humanwildlifeconflict #africa