Human-wildlife conflict is draining Africa of it’s lions

This is short video I put together explaining the impact that predator-livestock conflict is having on predator populations, even those within protected areas. Admittedly it casts a bleak outlook, but to conserve lions and rural livelihoods in Africa, we desperately need investment in developing practical and innovative conflict-prevention tools.

If you want to learn more about my exciting NEW PROJECT doing just this in collaboration with the Botswana Predator  Conservation Trust, then please check it out HERE and spread the word.

 

 

 

The hunt debunked?

Our new research shows that African wild dogs don’t hunt collaboratively or chase prey over long distances.

Pack-living African wild dogs are known as super-successful hunters, supposedly collaborating in coordinated attempts to run down their prey in long-distance chases. Such hunts have been dramatized in numerous wildlife documentaries, including Sir David Attenborough’s sensational series “The Hunt”. However, our new research, published as a pair of papers in Nature Communications, challenges these popular perceptions. Rather than collaborating to out-manoeuvre and wear down prey over long distances, wild dogs actually owe their hunting success to short high-speed runs, undertaken during hunts that typically lack high-level coordination between dogs.

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An African wild dog doing what we now know they do best: hunting prey in a series of short chases independent of its pack-mates. (Credit: Neil Jordan)

At our study site in Botswana, we fitted an entire pack of six dogs with sophisticated solar-powered data-logging collars that were built in-house by Professor Alan Wilson’s research team at the Royal Veterinary College in London. These collars are a sensational feat of engineering, and we were rewarded with the first simultaneous recordings from all individuals in a pack in their natural environment, and some really interesting and novel insights into the hunting ecology and dynamics of this incredible endangered species.

While popular and historical accounts describe high level collaboration between dogs hunting over long distances (usually in the short-grass plains), the reality in the woodland savannah of the Okavango delta was quite different. In fact we found zero evidence of high-level cooperative hunting. Instead, individual dogs ran independently of other pack members, did not assume particular roles and never ran ‘relays’ (taking over the chase from a tiring pack-mate; a common misconception). In fact, hunts lacked any evidence of advanced levels of coordination at all.

While this lack of coordination was unexpected, perhaps even more surprising to us was the short distances and high speeds over which hunts took place. African wild dogs are considered the epitome of endurance hunters, chasing down their prey over long chases lasting many kilometres, but once again we found that the dogs confounded our expectation. Instead of engaging in marathon chases, ‘our’ African wild dogs typically employed short bursts of speed over distances averaging a mere 213-metres, and they only ran at high speed for a mere 1km each day. This is well short of the many kilometres previously reported and considered to be typical of the species.

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Sharing the spoils: individuals from our radio-collared study pack feed together after a hunt (Photo credit: Megan Claase).

So why is all of this important? Marathon chases were the main reason that African wild dogs were considered vulnerable to the impacts of losing their hard-earned spoils to competitors like spotted hyaenas. However, because wild dogs appear to ‘pay’ much less for their dinner than was previously thought, it’s also cheaper to lose that food. Their ‘tactic’ of hunting via a series of independent shorter chases and sharing the spoils with their pack mates therefore makes African wild dogs more energetically robust to losing their prey than was previously thought.

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African wild dogs attack and drive off a single spotted hyaena. Haven’t they heard the news that they can afford to give up their prey occasionally? (Photo credit: Megan Claase).

A note of caution though. While this is obviously a welcome bit of good news for this endangered species, African wild dogs are not out of the woods yet. Wide-ranging packs are often exposed to human threats outside protected areas, which are generally too small and filled with competitors to maintain viable populations of African wild dogs. We clearly still need space and coexistence strategies to protect these iconic hunters, and that ultimately is our major research focus.

If you’re interested, you can access the papers here: Hunting strategy paperEnergy balance paper, or via the links under my Publications page.

 

Links to this research in the press

Science magazine:  Wild dogs have adapted to threats by hunting more like cheetahs

National Geographic blog: African Wild Dogs Sharing Kill With The Pack Are More Efficient Than Cheetahs

Natureasia: Sharing is key to wild dog hunting success

IFLScience: African Wild Dogs Sharing Kill With The Pack Are More Efficient Than Cheetah

 

[Note that the study described above was funded by the European Research Council, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and with the kind permission of the Government of Botswana. The Botswana Predator Conservation Trust is supported by grants from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Wild Entrust International, Tusk Trust and private donors.]

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.

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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?

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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.

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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!