Humans have shared the pastures of South Africa’s Namaqualand region with wildlife for thousands of years. Conflict between the two is not a new issue, but clashes have intensified in recent years as herds of livestock have expanded, infringing on wild predator territories.
Yet a new project, funded in part by Conservation International (CI), is proving that domestic animals don’t have to be at odds with wild ones; in this case, guard dogs actually help keep wild cats alive.
The Succulent Karoo biodiversity hotspot in the Namaqualand region is known for its thousands of unique plant species and rare animals such as the Cape mountain zebra (Equus zebra zebra). The human residents of Namaqualand are equally adapted to its arid shrubland; for many rural people, herding is a way of life.
The success and prosperity of herders is closely connected to the number of animals they own. Unfortunately, sheep and goats prove to be easy targets for wild predators such as the Cape leopard (Panthera pardus pardus), African wild cat (Felis silvestris lybica) and caracal (Caracal caracal), especially during times of drought, when gazelles and other wild prey may be harder to find. As predation takes a toll on livestock numbers, farmers resort to hunting, poisoning or trapping the predators in order to defend their herds.
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The most frequently used predator control method is the gin trap (otherwise known as a steel jaw trap), which severely injures the animal unlucky enough to get caught, leaving it to die a slow, painful death. Gin traps also ensnare many non-threatening species; for every one predator that is caught in a trap, about ten other animals—porcupines (Hystrix africaeaustralis), bat-eared foxes (Otocyon megalotis) and aardvarks (Orycteropus afer), among other species—are caught accidentally.
While farmers understandably need to protect their herds, the toll on wild predators and non-predators alike has the long-term potential to damage ecosystems, reduce tourism revenue and eventually lead to the loss of the iconic species that make Namaqualand unique.
Dogs for Conservation
Several new livestock protection techniques are being implemented, ranging from electric fencing to outfitting herd animals with bells to scare predators off. However, one of the most successful methods has been thousands of years in the making; Anatolian shepherd dogs have long been bred to protect livestock. The mere sight, sound or smell of one of these dogs is usually enough to deter predators, eliminating the need for traps.
Namaqua National Park formed the Anatolian Dog Breeding Centre in 2007, with original funding from South Africa’s SKEPPIES program, a small grants fund run jointly by CI, the Development Bank of South Africa and CI’s Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund. The John & Katie Hansen Family Foundation is currently funding the project. So far, the center has given dogs to eight communal farmers to protect their herds. Along with training on proper dog handling, the farmers are given a one-year supply of dog food and vet care. In return, they must agree not to hunt or trap wild predators.
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The guard dogs have proven to be important assets for their owners, reducing stock loss by up to 10 animals per farmer. For a farmer with an average-sized herd, this amounts to about 28 percent of his income. In the words of Martin Damon, a communal farmer and dog owner, “these dogs are worth gold.” Another communal farmer, Gert Brand, praised his dog, Vicky: “Since I’ve had Vicky I’ve had no losses to predators.”
After a recent newsletter article about the dogs was distributed to 1,000 farmers in the area, several readers showed interest in getting their own dogs. Three puppies were born at the Centre in September, and were placed with farmers who proved they are capable of caring for the animals. A staff member from the Centre visits the farmers monthly to check up on the dogs’ well-being and to give training advice.
As the program continues to expand, the Centre hopes to collaborate with CI-South Africa’s new Biodiversity and Red Meat Initiative Stewardship Programme, encouraging farmers to adopt more holistic farming practices which take into account not only predator control, but also water management, fire management, renewable energy, financial and social principles, grazing methods and stock numbers.
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