Scientists Are Painting Eyes on the Rumps of Cows in Botswana

July 21, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Painted eyes on the rump of a cow in Botswana. iCow
Photo credit: Ben Yexly/UNSW

“iCow” could keep cows safe from lions, and lions safe from people.

If you come across a cow in Botswana that’s staring at you through the eyes on its rump, you can probably thank an Australian conservation biologist.

It’s part of a new initiative — dubbed “iCow” — that involves painting large pairs of eyes on the backsides of cattle grazing near lion habitat, in an effort to deter the lions from preying on livestock and thus, preventing lethal retaliations by farmers.

Lions are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, with their declining numbers currently in the range of 23,000 to 39,000.

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“As protected conservation areas become smaller, lions are increasingly coming into contact with human populations, which are expanding to the boundaries of these protected areas,” says Neil Jordan, a conservation biologist from University of New South Wales, in a news release.

Being carnivores, lions readily eat livestock such as cattle. This negatively impacts subsistence farmers, who often respond by shooting or poisoning the lions.

Jordan’s idea for painting eyes on cattle to prevent them from becoming lion prey came about when he observed a lion hunting an impala. “Lions are ambush hunters, so they creep up on their prey, get close and jump on them unseen,” he says. “But in this case, the impala noticed the lion. And when the lion realised it had been spotted, it gave up on the hunt.”

By stamping eyes on cows, Jordan expects lions will be tricked into thinking they’ve been seen. With the ambush compromised, they will abandon their hunting effort.

A 10-week preliminary trial last year showed promising results. The researchers painted eyes on the rumps of one third of a herd of 62 cattle. While 3 of the 39 unpainted cows were killed by lions, none of the 23 painted cows were killed.

Jordan and his team have now returned to Botswana for a larger-scale study. With the A$6,300 they raised on the science crowdfunding platform, the team was able to purchase 10 cattle GPS loggers and one GPS radio collar, which will be fitted to a wild lion under anaesthetic.

The GPS devices will monitor the movements of cows and lions, revealing when and where they meet. “This will give us information about the exposure of painted and unpainted cows to predation risks, and where the conflict hotspots are,” says Jordan.

If the iCow initiative works, it could provide farmers with an inexpensive way of protecting their cattle herds, while keeping lions safe.

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