‘Painting eyes on cows to prevent lion attacks’

FOR more than 10,000 years, ever since man started herding cattle for food and enrichment in Africa, lions have been a huge problem.

A lion, or, more likely, a pride of lionesses – who are the real hunters – can ruin a small farmer’s livelihood by killing even a single cow, especially one that is pregnant or producing milk.

Thanks to Botswana’s excellent conservation policies, the country has one of Africa’s largest wild lion populations – estimated at 3,000.

BBC revealed that recent dry weather in southern Africa however is shrinking wildlife protection areas, while farmers are forced to seek new grazing lands. As a result, lions are increasingly coming into contact with humans.

For poorer subsistence farmers, though, it is harder. At night they herd their livestock into stockades made of logs and thorn trees to deter the lions. They also rely on barking dogs and perhaps the bravest might have once attacked lions with a spear. Some resort to shooting them or putting out poison, although hunting is illegal in Botswana.

Short of eradicating big cats, which would be unconscionable, there are few ideas being formulated to reduce the impact of their increasing presence.

However, one conservationist who has been working with the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust thinks he might have found a solution.

On a field trip, Neil Jordan watched a lion stalk an impala for 30 minutes but suddenly abandon his prey when the antelope turned and looked at the predator. This made him think that perhaps it was the eye contact that had saved the impala.

What if, he reasoned, an eye was painted on the rump of the animal? Would that have the same effect?

“I was very reluctant to share the idea at first because it does seem a bit wacky,” Mr Jordan admits. “But when we ran a short trial in 2015, we got promising, but as yet inconclusive results.”

In the initial study, Mr Jordan and his team painted large eyes on a third of a herd of cows on a farm on the edge of a wildlife area near Maun, in the north of the country.

The results were encouraging. Lions killed three of the 39 unpainted cows but none of the 23 painted cows was taken.

“I cheekily called our work the i-Cow project,” says Mr Jordan, who is based at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “It’s the opposite approach to Apple in being a low-cost, non-technological solution.”