Cheetahs get helping hand from guard dogs

What’s the connection between guard dogs and cheetah conservation? These helpful canines could defend farm animals from predator attacks. As a result, farmers could be less likely to kill cheetahs — which they blame for livestock deaths  and more supportive of their protection.

Tensions run high between farmers and carnivores. Predators sometimes kill farm animals, and conservation efforts “often [place] those who wish to restore carnivore populations at odds with livestock producers who may experience economic losses,” researchers write in Wildlife Society Bulletin. Some programs offer financial compensation for the lost animals, but farmers are often still resentful of carnivores and retaliate by killing them.

The authors studied the effectiveness of a simple strategy: Place guard dogs on farms to ward off attacks on livestock. An NGO gave 97 Anatolian shepherds to farmers in South Africa from 2005 to 2011, and a “Dog Officer” visited the farms periodically to get updates on the dogs’ performance.

The team found that guard dogs reduced livestock losses due to predators by an average of 98 percent and eliminated them entirely on 66 of the 70 farms studied. While predators had killed 2 to 50 percent of each farm’s animals per year before the dogs arrived, those numbers dropped to 0 to 2 percent with dogs present. And the dogs seemed equally adept at protecting goats, sheep, and cattle.

Having a guard dog would save a farmer about $3,200 per year, the researchers estimate. Out of 14 interviewed farmers, eight strongly agreed that the number of cheetahs in the area had increased, and 11 said they now felt much more tolerant of cheetahs.

The scheme didn’t work perfectly. Sixteen percent of the dogs had behavioral problems, such as not paying enough attention to their charges. And guarding livestock is a dangerous business: More than one-fifth of the dogs died from snake bites, heavy metal poisoning, electrocution, and other causes. Some were killed by predators or people; one poor puppy was crushed by a goat. To reduce the death rate, dogs could be outfitted with spiked collars and trained to avoid snakes, the researchers suggest.Roberta Kwok | 28 November 2013

Source: Rust, N.A. et al. 2013. Perceived efficacy of livestock-guarding dogs in South Africa: Implications for cheetah conservation. Wildlife Society Bulletin doi: 10.1002/wsb.352.

Image © Benjamin-Nocke | Shutterstock