Neil Jordan likes to get inside an animalís mind when heís working to save a species. Take lions, for example.
“Lions are ambush predators; they rely on stealth and the element of surprise in order to bring down their prey,” he said. “As soon as they lose that element of surprise, as soon as the prey sees them, they abandon their hunt.”
That is why he and fellow researchers are going to Botswana to paint eyes on cows’ rumps. They hope it will prove a low-cost way to protect livestock from lions, and lions from being killed by farmers in retaliation. One of the main threats to lions in Africa is conflict with farmers, who shoot or poison them to stop them preying on livestock. In the 1990s there were more than 100,000 African lions. There could now be as few as 23,000 adults and they are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Dr Jordan, a conservation biologist at the University of NSW’s Centre for Ecosystem Science, said farmers and local governments feel the only way they can protect livestock from lions is to kill them.
“It’s from desperation, really, because obviously the lions affect their livelihood and the non-lethal tools that might be available are all very expensive,” he said. “As protected conservation areas become smaller, lions are increasingly coming into contact with human populations, which are expanding to the boundaries of these protected
Dr Jordan, who also holds research posts at the Taronga Conservation Society Australia and the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, was inspired to paint eyes onto cattle after watching a lion hunt an impala. When the intended prey cottoned on to the carnivore’s presence, the lion gave up the hunt.
“We wanted to hijack this natural response by painting eyes on the rumps of cows, so that lions could be tricked into thinking they’d been seen and abandon the hunt,” he said.
It’s the same kind of “psychological trickery” employed by woodcutters in India, who ward off tigers by wearing face masks on the backs of their heads, and butterflies that avoid becoming bird food thanks to eye-like patterns on their wings.
Dr Jordan trialled his idea - which he calls iCow - last year, with promising results. The researchers stamped painted eyes onto one-third of a herd of 62 cattle, making sure the eyes were large, easily visible and “potentially intimidating”. While three unpainted cows were killed by lions, all the painted cows survived to graze another day.
If successful, iCow would be an affordable tool for farmers; losing one cow costs five times as much as painting a herd of 60 cattle. Over the next three months Dr Jordan will lead further testing on another herd of cattle in Botswana.