i-cows! Could saving lions be this simple?

Eye patterns painted on the hides of cattle is a rare sight in more ways than one: it’s a low cost, locally implementable potential solution to human-wildlife conflict.


Although trophy hunting of African lions and leopards has been banned in Botswana for many years, still the killing of lions continues. Lions kill livestock and, in the absence of alternative methods of preventing these losses, farmers retaliate. Such lethal control of these majestic animals is a temporary respite for farmers at best, as removing the culprits simply creates a vacuum of a vacant territory that is quickly filled by other lions. And so the deadly cycle continues, and large carnivores, including leopards, lions and African wild dogs, are literally draining away before our eyes. What can we do about this?

Lioness in her prime, shot by villager in Sankuyo, northern Botswana (within the wildlife management area).

One of the biggest conservation challenges we face is to provide subsistence farmers with cheap and effective alternative methods of protecting their livestock, without shooting large carnivores. The good news though is that although the problem is a complex one, the solution doesn’t necessarily need to be complex too. In fact the most effective solutions to human-wildlife conflict really MUST be simple and inexpensive. This is the only way to ensure they are available to subsistence farmers who simply don’t have access to funds or resources. We’re hoping that our novel “i-cow” approach to preventing human-wildlife conflict may just such a solution.

There is ample evidence from the animal kingdom that being watched, or at least feeling like you are being watched, will affect your behaviour. Humans are less likely to steal from a store if there are eyes painted on the wall “watching”, and man-eating tigers appear to be less likely to attack woodcutters working in Bengal forests if they are wearing masks on the backs of their heads. Perhaps the eyes have it. For predators like lions and leopards whose entire hunting strategy relies on stalking and maintaining the element of surprise right to the last second, being seen by their prey usually results in the hunt being abandoned. It’s not a big leap to suggest that painting intimidating eyes onto the hides of cows might work in the same way and reduce predation and promote coexistence with large carnivores. Until now however, this has never been suggested let alone tested.

Scary ass cows
These are scary-ass cows, but will lions and leopards be intimidated?

I have developed the “i-cow” or “scary-ass cow” concept because shooting lions is an inexpensive, but ultimately ineffective method of protecting livestock losses, but it’s almost the only action that farmers feel they can take. Instead, what farmers need are cheap and effective solutions that PREVENT livestock losses. Perhaps scary-ass cows are a non-lethal ‘weapon’ they could use instead.

In collaboration with the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, I now need to test whether the i-cow theory works in practice, and am in the process of attempting to raise funds to collar conflict lions and leopards to answer this question. We already know that the pen is mightier than the sword, but is the paintbrush mightier than the gun? It seems to me it’s worth a shot. A non-lethal shot of course.

Do you want to help?

Because farmers need to know that this can work before laying down arms, I am currently fundraising to formally test the concept. The ultimate aim is to roll this tool out over large areas, where we can make a big difference to big cat conservation. Please do consider supporting this important work, by donating to the project (link above), staying in touch with my updates from the field, and spreading the word far and wide.

Thank you for thinking of and acting towards large carnivore coexistence!

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