If you chat to commercial and subsistence farmers in the area as we did recently, you hear tales of frightening numbers of sheep and goats killed by leopards, caracals and jackals. You also hear stories of wild creatures meeting a horrible death in a steel trap.
I’ve always been on the wildlife’s side, but it’s sobering to talk to farmers who have lost so much – especially to leopards who will kill and maim perhaps eight animals in one evening’s big spree and eat almost nothing. As one farmer said, ‘I could accept losing an animal every now and again if only they were being eaten; but to have them killed for no good reason is just too much.’
Stock losses mean the loss of income for the farmer, so you probably can’t blame him for setting traps to catch jackals and caracal – even if you think this is a cruel method. But based on the skulls found at traps, some 80% of the animals caught in the traps aren’t actually the species that are being targeted; they’re more likely to be aardwolf, aardvark, genet, African wild cat, honey badger, bat-eared fox, even mongoose and tortoise.
Conservation International understands that farmers need to protect their herds, but suggest that in the long term the toll on wild predators and non-predators alike can damage ecosystems, reduce tourism revenue and eventually lead to the loss of certain species.
The Anatolian shepherd to the rescue
Enter the Anatolian shepherd dog, the same breed used by Dr Laurie Marker and the Cheetah Conservation Fund to prevent Namibian farmers from trapping and killing cheetahs.
Originating in Turkey and with a history that goes back thousands of years, these intelligent and independent guard dogs are introduced to their flock when they’re 6-8 weeks old, so that they think of them as ‘family’ and will protect them fiercely without any human intervention. Since their tactics are based largely on scaring off wild animals rather than killing them, this helps to conserve wildlife. ‘A warning bark is enough to keep most of the predators at bay,’ says Anatolian Dog Project manager Elanza van Lente. Once a predator realises sheep and goats aren’t so easy to catch now that Big Brother is on patrol, they soon learn to hunt elsewhere. The Anatolian shepherd, with its thick neck, broad head and sturdy body that can weigh up to 68 kilograms, is not to be taken lightly – even by the likes of a 13kg caracal or a 30-60kg leopard.
The Anatolian Dog Project based in the Namaqua National Park has been helping to breed and provide these dogs at an affordable price to communities that can’t pay the full market value – a whopping R2500 to R6000 per animal. If there’s a sponsor, the animal might be given free; if not, it will cost the subsistence farmer only R800. The idea is that by helping to conserve small mammals on private land adjoining the park, the genetic diversity of animals within the park will be greater, benefiting the Succulent Karoo biome as a whole.
And it works. Stock losses to farmers who have these dogs have dropped off sharply (some figures suggest by as much as 90%). You can imagine the difference: if you used to lose 30-40 sheep or goats to predators every year and now that your Anatolian shepherd is on duty you’re losing only 1-5 a year, you’d be pretty darn impressed with your dog – and far less likely to set traps. As one community farmer commented, ‘This dog is worth gold.’ Even having to buy the right food for the dog turns out to be far more cost-effective than losing all that stock.
What’s equally important is that camera traps set inside and outside the park show that farms with one of these dogs have more wildlife than those that don’t. And that’s surely a triumph for conservation.
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