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South Africa: Dogs battle cheetahs

Anatolian sheepdogs protect livestock from wild cats. In return, farmers no longer hunt cheetahs.

MOLOPO RIVER, South Africa — Peter Knipe’s cattle ranch along the South African border with Botswana is deep in cheetah territory.

It is a sparsely populated area on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, where men on horseback round up cattle on the scrubland under a blazing sun.

In the 1980s and 1990s, few wild cheetahs were seen in these parts, but in recent years more and more have appeared, due in part to conservation efforts on the Botswana side. Remote farms like Knipe’s are among the few remaining havens for the cheetah, which number only about 10,000 in the world — down from 100,000 a century ago. In southern Africa, most cheetahs live outside of protected reserves.

The cheetahs began killing the livestock, putting them at danger of retaliatory attacks from farmers. At Knipe’s ranch, some 50 to 70 young goats a season were perishing, almost all by cheetahs visiting his pastures for an easy meal. Some farmers in the area became so frustrated that they would illegally shoot the cheetahs, poison them or leave them to die in traps set for jackals.

“Cheetahs have been persecuted in this area,” says Knipe.

On his 18,500-acre ranch, Knipe keeps cows and goats as well as wild game such as kudu, impala, gemsbok and giraffes, which he breeds and sells. Knipe says that while he would never kill a cheetah, he lamented the “huge losses” of his goats, which are like sitting ducks for predators. So he decided to get a dog.

Neeake is an Anatolian shepherd dog, a Turkish breed renowned for its ability to guard livestock, and was donated to Knipe under a program run by the conservation group Cheetah Outreach. The idea is that the dogs will help farmers protect their livestock, so the cheetahs will no longer be targeted by angry farmers, who are one of the biggest threats to their survival. It’s an innovative way to help an animal classified as “vulnerable” on the global list of endangered species.

Since Neeake came to the ranch at Molopo River a year and a half ago, Knipe hasn’t lost any goats under the dog’s watch. He has been able to increase the size of his herd from 250 to more than 400.

“We’ve got zero losses where we use the dogs,” says Knipe, who recently got another Anatolian puppy to help him with his growing herd of goats.

Anatolian shepherds are big, powerful dogs that were bred to protect livestock from bears and wolves in central Turkey. They do just as well against the cheetahs in Africa, in addition to the leopards, caracals, brown hyenas and jackals also in the area along the South Africa-Botswana border. The dogs are highly intelligent and independent and their short hair makes them well-suited for keeping cool on hot African days.