The Unexpected Way Dogs Are Saving Cheetahs
Posted by Richard Conniff on December 3, 2013
Roughly 6,000 years ago in the uplands of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, a few clever humans began to deploy dogs to guard their livestock. This idea—Fido standing up alone against wolves, bears, or even lions—may seem like ancient (and insanely courageous) history. And yet every now and then, someone wakes up and says, “Oh! Wait! Maybe that was a smart idea, after all.”
That person is right, according to a new study in Wildlife Society Bulletin, which backs up that perception with numbers. Nicola A. Rust and her coauthors looked at a guard dog program launched by the conservation group Cheetah Outreach in 2005 along South Africa’s border with Zimbabwe and Botswana.
Ranchers there, as elsewhere in the world, tend to regard native predators as a menace to their livestock, and given the chance, they sometimes kill them. But the emotional appeal of what American ranchers living with wolves call “shoot, shovel, and shut up” didn’t work out too well in South Africa, says Rust, a University of Kent graduate student.
When twentieth-century farmers exterminated lions, leopards, and spotted hyenas, the lack of competition from larger cats benefited cheetahs and other smaller predators. Populations of jackals and caracals boomed as a consequence, to the point that sheep farming in particular was no longer economical in some areas. When farmers then began to target the smaller predators, it began to seem as if they were only killing off the dumber jackals, leaving the wilier ones to do even more damage. Where jackals normally give away their presence with nocturnal yipping and wailing, says Rust, a population of silent jackals appeared in one area.
Cheetah Outreach thought that guard dogs might work better than random predator killing to protect both the livestock and the predators. So, in 2005, the group began to train Anatolian shepherd guard dogs. These big, powerful animals can weigh 150 pounds and stand 29 inches at the shoulder—slightly larger, in fact, than a cheetah. The name of the breed, and its lore, suggests that it dates back 6,000 years to those same early shepherds in the Eastern Mediterranean uplands.
The dog program planners interviewed interested farmers who had suffered livestock losses from predators. The ones who made the cut received instruction in how to train and care for their dogs. In addition to acquiring and training the puppies, Cheetah Outreach agreed to pay the cost of each dog’s food, vaccines, neutering, microchipping, and other veterinary services for the first year. The program also hired a dog officer to visit each farmer monthly for the first year, then quarterly, and finally once a year. In return, the farmers, who had been losing as much as half their livestock to predators every year, agreed not to kill any more cheetahs.
Rust and her coauthors suggest that it worked. Their study looked at 97 farms where dogs went to work in the first six years of the program and found that about 90 percent of them had completely eliminated the reported loss of livestock to predators. All of the farms experienced a minimum 33 percent decline in losses.
The program was, however, hard on the dogs. A leopard killed one, a hyena another, and altogether 21 dogs died—from vehicle accidents, poachers’ snares, electrocution, and especially snakebite. Puff adders are sometimes known as “lazy snakes,” but their bite is deadly, says Rust, who recommends that the program train the dogs to leave the snakes alone.
Also on the negative side, the program cost Cheetah Outreach about $2,800 per dog in the first year. But even after picking up all costs from the second year on, the farmers saved about $500 annually. That’s not counting “intangible benefits,” like reduced disease transmission between wildlife and livestock, reduced stress from finding the carcasses of lost animals, and an improved sense of security.
So, will it save cheetahs, now considered a vulnerable species, with fewer than 10,000 adults surviving in the wild? Among the farmers surveyed by Rust and her coauthors, most thought they had seen an increase in cheetahs in their area. And 79 percent also said their tolerance for cheetahs had greatly increased as a result of being involved with the guard dog program.
Rust says that the guard dog program, now up to several hundred dogs, may never be a good fit for some farmers. They don’t want the hassle of feeding and caring for a dog. They’ve also grown up in a habitat shaped by a century of bounties for killing predators. Once the predators had been exterminated from large areas, farmers didn’t need guard dogs anymore, she says, and “it’s quite surprising how people forget. So you have to remind people that their ancestors were using these dogs for millennia.”
And maybe, she suggests gently, they were onto a good thing.