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Keeping peace with predators can cut livestock deaths

Co-authored by Erica Cirino

Cows grazing in the UK. Credit: IDS.photos (Wikimedia Commons)
Cows grazing in the UK. Credit: IDS.photos (Wikimedia Commons)

When predator animals like tigers, lions, bears and wolves attack livestock animals like goats, cows and horses, you need to kill off the predators to reduce livestock deaths, right?

Wrong: Several studies have shown that lethal methods of livestock protection aren’t more effective than nonlethal methods, and in some cases might actually increase livestock deaths. The most recent study on this topic published last month concludes there’s little scientific evidence that killing predators actually helps to protect livestock.

Wild Bengal tiger resting. Credit: Unsplash (Pixabay)
Wild Bengal tiger resting. Credit: Unsplash (Pixabay)

While mortalities due to predator attacks are not extremely common they do happen. Over the years many farmers have developed an array of nonlethal methods of predator control that allow them to both protect their stock and keep the peace with predators.

Some of the simplest examples include keeping barking dogs near livestock, installing predator-deterrent fencing and shelter, as well as keeping livestock, especially young animals, out of areas where predators are prevalent. Some farmers espousing these methods include B Bar Ranch in Emigrant, Montana, near Yellowstone National Park.

Using art—specifically paintings of eyes—is a more novel method of preventing deaths of both livestock and humans.

People living on the Ganges Delta in India where Bengal tigers live under protection in the Sundarban Tiger Reserve have long been dealing with the threat of death when they go there to collect the abundant fish, honey and wood that’s found there. Since the 1970s, tigers there had been killing 60 people a year. Then, in 1986, the Indian Forestry Service issued masks to 2,500 of the 8,000 people who got permits to spend time in the park that year.

Man heading into the Sundarban Nature Reserve with a backwards-facing mask to ward off potential tiger attacks. Credit: Anubhuti (Pinterest)
Man heading into the Sundarban Nature Reserve with a backwards-facing mask to ward off potential tiger attacks. Credit: Anubhuti (Pinterest)

From 1986 to 1989, the New York Times reported no people were killed while wearing the masks, while others who had not been wearing the masks were attacked. However, today, as humans have continued to encroach on the tigers’ land there, attacks have resumed and many have given up on using the masks as a deterrent.

Similarly, expert Neil Jordan at the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust in Africa, has recently began a new nonlethal predator deterrent initiative studying how painting eyes on cattle rumps can deter wild lions from attacking. He was inspired both by the people in the Sundarban Tiger Reserve and his own experiences watching lions stalk their prey. He noticed one day a lion tailing an impala for 30 minutes, only to suddenly abandon its prey when the impala turned and looked back at the predator. Was it the impala’s eyes that deterred the lion?

Lioness in Kenya, Africa, licks her lips after a large meal. Credit: Carl Safina
Lioness in Kenya, Africa, licks her lips after a large meal. Credit: Carl Safina

To find out, Jordan and several volunteers used homemade stamps to paint big yellow eyes on the rumps of one-third of cattle in a herd on the border of a wildlife reserve near Maun, Botswana. Lions killed three of the 39 unpainted cows but none of the 23 with eyes painted on their rumps.

Neil Jordan and a freshly stenciled cow. Credit: Neil Jordan
Neil Jordan and a freshly stenciled cow. Credit: i-cows

Some are skeptical that Jordan’s painted-eye method of deterring predators will prove successful in the long run. Lions are smart, they argue, and can over time learn that the marks on cows’ rumps aren’t actually seeing eyes.

For the people of the Sundarban Tiger Reserve, at least, the masks still seem to be working, twenty years after they first were used there. In Africa, Jordan continues to study the efficacy of his cattle-rump stamps as part of a research program dubbed “i-cows.” If his method proves effective, it may be among the cheapest, easiest and most accessible methods of predator control on the market—all you need is a stamp, some paint and a little creativity.