I-cow project gives hope to Botswana's lion-fearing farmers


Shukamukwa - Could painting an eye on a cow's bottom really scare off lions in rural Botswana?

That's the breathtakingly simple idea behind the "I-cow" experiment underway in a part of this southern African country where herders are losing livestock to lions at an alarming rate.

In a low-tech, low-cost and beautifully creative attempt to halt lions in their tracks, each cow gets an eye hand-painted - or rather "stamped" - onto its ample behind. 

The theory is that a lion eyeing up a beef supper will believe he's been seen and slink away.

Results from a pilot I-cow project carried out last year on a herd of 62 cows in northern Botswana's Shukamukwa are encouraging, according to Dr Neil Jordan of the University of New South Wales and the Taronga Conservation Society of Australia, who spoke to News24.

Working with a local farmer and the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, Jordan gave 23 of the herd an "eye" or a "scary ass" as he puts it. For the 10 weeks that the pilot project lasted, not one of these cows was taken by a lion. But three non-painted cows were.

Human-wildlife conflict 

Though this result was "extremely promising", Jordan doesn't want to give false hope to already-struggling farmers. That's why the experiment is being extended. He and the team have secured funding which will pay for 10 GPS loggers for cattle and one GPS collar for a local lion. (The satellite collar is the most expensive outlay but is vital to be able to accurately measure the real risk from the lion that the cows face). 

The test will be carried out at just one cattlepost for now. It was selected, says Jordan, because it is "closest to the wildlife area and therefore likely to suffer the most".

"If the technique works here then we would like to roll this out to all of the farms in the area," he added.

The "eye" is really a homemade stamp. It's cut out of foam, glued to a wooden float, dipped in paint and pressed on to the cow's behind. The cost to farmers is minimal, probably representing over a period of 12 months one-fifth of what it would cost to lose a single cow. 

Jordan told News24 that he first got the I-cow idea when he watched a lion abandon a 30-minute stalk of an impala simply because the impala spotted him.

Human-wildlife conflict is a huge issue in southern Africa, most frequently seen in the attacks by lions on small-scale farmers' herds.

Deterrent initiatives 

Sometimes that results in poisoning or shooting of predators: a man was recently convicted in southern-eastern Zimbabwe's Chiredzi district of killing four lions that had been preying on his donkeys, while in north-western Namibia one of the extremely rare "desert lions" was last month shot dead.

Working with local communities, researchers in the region have been trying a number of deterrent initiatives, including flashing LED lights, vuvuzelas and "lion guardians" who team up at news of approaching predators and try to scare them off.

Jordan says the I-cow initiative is particularly suited to farmers in this area of Botswana because they operate on what he calls "a culture of un-shepherded release and return”.

Their animals are released from their kraals in the morning and herded back in at night, wandering mainly at will during the daytime in their search for grazing. Farmers have had help to upgrade their kraals so at night the cows are protected. However, says Jordan "the patterns are made to be very contrasting, so [the eye] may also be effective at night."

For any lions out there: An eye is upon you.

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