South Africa: Dogs battle 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.

On Knipe’s farm, Neeake was placed with the goat kids when he was a puppy and grew up next to them, developing a strong and loyal bond. Now he stays with the goats all day, keeping watch for intruders as they graze and sleeping with them in their corral at night, although in a dog house.

“He stays out with the goats. That’s his place,” says Knipe.

Knipe also keeps Rottweiler dogs as pets, but says that Neeake is different. Like a protective mother goat he is constantly vigilant and on the lookout for predators, and not easily distracted. “He’s not like a normal house dog,” says Knipe.

The Cheetah Outreach program tells of the amazing feats of Anatolians in protecting their livestock from cheetahs and other predators.

A young dog named Crickey fought off a leopard to save his herd. He was badly injured, and after a visit to the vet, was taken into the farmhouse to recover. But Crickey had other ideas, and that night he escaped from the house and walked 9 miles to return to his herd. Another Anatolian shepherd, Uthaya, was seen gently dragging an old and sickly ewe in his herd into the shade on a hot day.

Cyril Stannard, coordinator for the Anatolian shepherd project, says that at first some farmers were skeptical of the program. “It was a new concept and so we had to prove it,” he says. “Luckily the dogs we have placed have proved themselves.”

The dogs have reduced livestock losses by 95 to 100 percent, according to Stannard. They mostly guard sheep and goats, but some have been trained to protect cattle. The farmers say that as long as they’re not losing livestock to cheetahs, they aren’t tempted to hunt the wild cats. “The farmers have become tolerant,” Stannard says.

Stannard says that 76 dogs have been placed since 2005 in the three areas where the program is active in South Africa, along the borders with Botswana and Zimbabwe. It’s an area he describes as “the last frontier for free-ranging cheetahs” in South Africa.

Cheetahs are the fastest animal in the world, hitting speeds of up to 70 miles per hour in explosive but short bursts of energy. Cheetah cub mortality is as high as 90 percent, largely due to attacks by predators such as lions.

Their habitat has been dramatically reduced in the past 100 years, as it has for all other wild animals in Africa. But unlike other animals, cheetahs don’t do very well on nature reserves.

While they are keen hunters, they are poor fighters because of their small jaws and teeth, and they lose much of their prey to more aggressive animals such as hyenas and lions. Cheetahs tend to run away rather than fight.

In Swaziland, which is bordered on three sides by South Africa, a man plead guilty in court recently for shooting and then eating a cheetah that had killed 10 of his 14 goats, according to the Times of Swaziland.

In Knipe’s area, the view towards cheetahs is changing. With the Anatolian shepherd dogs came education programs for farm staff, and awareness about cheetahs has spread out into the community. For example, people in the area who were once fearful of cheetahs are learning that the animals rarely attack humans.

Knipe concluded, “the farmers are becoming cheetah-friendly.”