Annika Hugosson is a contributing blogger for Veterinarians International. She has a passion for wildlife conservation and is engrossed by the nuances of animal behavior and communication. Annika travels to sub-Saharan Africa as often as she can to observe wildlife and support local conservation efforts, and to keep tabs on her three foster elephants in Kenya.
Cheetah Conservation Fund’s Livestock Guard Dogs Aid Namibian Farmers
It was difficult to have puppies run up to me and not be able to interact with them, but it was for the best. As I resisted the urge to show some affection to one particularly charismatic young shepherd, our tour guide explained that at this point in the dogs’ development, interaction with humans should be minimized so they would instead bond with the goats that shared their enclosure. He explained that the litter had lived with goats from a very young age and that they would grow up to see goats as a member of the pack, protecting them as such. They otherwise receive little formal training. This seemingly simple process, established in 1994 by the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), has been paramount in reducing human-wildlife conflict in Namibia, the cheetah capital of the world.
Despite the arid landscape that dominates Namibia, and the fact that only 2% of it receives enough rainfall to grow crops, 25% to 40% of its residents depend on subsistence agriculture and herding, according to a 2016 report from the U.S. Department of State. It is the second least densely populated country in the world, and you can drive for hours without seeing signs of life: either human or non-human animal. It also is home to the largest population of wild cheetahs of any African country.
Consider the C28 highway, which runs for about 200 miles and connects the capital city Windhoek with Swakopmund on the coast. Despite the fact that it connects two of the country’s most populous cities, fewer than ten cars are said to use it each day. I drove it solo, it took me almost seven hours, and I passed four cars. The only signs of development were extensive fencing networks and signs indicating that there may be cattle in the road. Without four-wheel drive, a spare tire, sufficient water, or mobile service, I contemplated what I would do if I got stuck. Obviously I was passing farmland, and took some comfort in believing I could walk into the nearest farm and seek help. When I reached WiFi in Swakopmund and did some research, I learned from a blogger who biked the highway that the farmhouses are all very far from the main highway, several miles inland.
This experience illustrated just how vast Namibian farmsteads can be, and it makes sense that according to CCF, over 90 percent of Namibian cheetahs live on private farmland, alongside human communities. I learned later in my trip, when I headed north to Etosha National Park, that cheetahs do not thrive in the protected parks because the concentration of predators is higher, meaning there is greater competition for prey. This is one of the reasons that cub mortality can be as high as 90 percent; they’re the smallest of the big cats. They’re also prey themselves; in a study conducted in the Tanzania’s Serengeti, lions were the primary predators of young cheetahs. Cheetahs aren’t well suited for protected land, yet they maintain massive territories, traveling great distances each day. With so much of Namibia comprised of farmland, where else would they go?
While the elusive leopard also prowls farmland (and is actually large and powerful enough to take down healthy, adult livestock), it hunts at night, and would rarely be seen by a farmer. The diurnal cheetah, however, makes fewer efforts to conceal itself and can be spotted fairly easily. So, when a farmer wakes up to find livestock has been killed, and spots a cheetah in the distance, it is often the innocent cheetah that is blamed, and killed.
This is where the livestock guarding dogs come in. CCF breeds Anatolian Shepherds at its facility in Otjiwarongo, and adopts them out to Namibian farmers at an affordable price when they are just nine weeks old. Anatolian Shepherds grow to be very big, with males weighing up to 140 pounds—almost always outweighing the subspecies of cheetah found in Namibia. Known not just for their size but also for their booming bark, rugged strength, and excellent eyesight, they are perfect for guarding livestock and have done so for millennia. They are built to roam with their flock, and can live happily and independently without supervision or direction from their farmer. Comparing the stature of the thick, muscular Anatolian shepherd with the lithe, almost greyhound-like build of a cheetah, it’s easy to see why a few big barks can scare off even the hungriest cheetah, leading them off in search of a more suitable meal.
The cheetah’s status is becoming increasingly dire with habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, and the illegal pet trade threatening their numbers.
According to CCF, livestock farmers cut the cheetah’s population in half in th 1980s, which depleted the ecosystem of approximately 10,000. Since establishing the Livestock Guarding Dog Program more than 20 years ago, farmers and cheetah conservationists alike have been thrilled with the results, with farmers reporting declines in livestock loss by 80-100 percent. The Fund performs follow-up site visits on the farms to ensure the dogs are up-to-date on vaccines.
In addition to providing the dogs and providing them medical care, CCF educates its farmers on the importance of the cheetah’s role in the ecosystem, and need for humans and predators to coexist. For example, they train farmers in how to identify which predator made a kill by examining the wounds, so blame is not wrongly placed on the cheetah. By bringing light not only to the plight of the cheetah, but also by changing attitudes and perceptions of predators, CCF is hopeful that the population can rebound before it is too late.
One of the puppies jumps on his mother’s head; he wants milk, but she’s not in the mood and emits an exasperated bark. In this innocent, playful moment, it is hard to imagine that this puppy will be roaming rocky farmland with his flock in just a few weeks. He will never grasp just how important he is to his flock-mates, his farmer, and to the cheetahs dependent on him for survival.