The Kalahari — the word means “waterless” — stretches across the area equal to that spanned by the eight US states that stretch from Idaho and Montana, southwards to Arizona and New Mexico. Our winter journey across the monotonous dry savannah of yellow grass and green acacia trees takes days. For our second visit to National Geographic Big Cats Initiative grantees, Rudi van Aarde and I are heading to Cheetah Conservation Botswana, in Ghanzi, close to Botswana’s western border with Namibia. (The first instalment was B is for boma, K for kraal.)
Same grass, same acacia trees, hour after hour. Same donkeys — Botswana has huge numbers of them. Same road verges neatly trimmed well back from the road to discourage large mammals from feeding there and colliding with trucks and cars.
Well back from the road are fences. They are not all the same! Some are simple strands of barbed wire that keep in cattle or goats. Others are higher and more substantial. They keep in game — gemsbok, springbok, kudu and other species that are farmed either for their meat, for hunters to shoot, or tourists to photograph, and often all three.
In those different fences is a story about big cat conservation. Few fences are cat-proof. If you farm game, cheetahs and leopards are enemies to which you will give no quarter. Their natural prey is your profit.
Staying one night at a game farm near the Botswana-Namibian border, we sit drinking our gin and tonics, watching the sunset, and talking to its owner. “How are you gemsbok doing?” “ And your kudu?” Then, “and do you have cheetahs?” “Ouch! We have a massive problem with cheetahs!” the owner replies. “We’ve killed 35 this year alone on our property. Our neighbours killed 20.”
Around Ghanzi, the land surface is a waterless as elsewhere, but just beneath the surface is an aquifer that makes it possible to ranch domestic animals. The style of the fences changes and, with it, the possibilities for protecting big cats.
We’re visiting Big Cats grantee Jane Horgan — and her dogs. Murphy welcomes us enthusiastically. He’s a large, loveable Anatolian. Be under no illusion: dogs may be our best friends, but altruism has nothing to do with it.
Anatolians have a reputation as guarding dogs, but it’s one based on their success in Anatolia, where winters are severe. Experiences using this breed in the drylands of southern Africa have not been good. They do not handle the heat, they are prone to disease, and their large size means a voracious appetite, something poor ranchers often cannot provide. Many develop cancers of the tongue. Some projects using them — not ones funded by NGS, I must stress — have seen high death rates, often at the hands of their owners.
So, Jane is trying the local dogs — the ones herdsman have used traditionally. Cheetah Conservation Botswana has a model ranch. The pups are put with the goats and sheep, brought up with them, and consider them family. After neutering the dogs and giving them their shots, the project puts them to work with local ranches, charging the ranchers a small amount for each pup.
Jane is under no illusion about this project. Cheetah Conservation Botswana staff visits the owners regularly thereafter to make sure the dogs are being treated well. They provide free veterinary care when needed. Some are being treated too well and live as family and not working dogs. Either way, they find the dogs newer homes.
The work has only just started, but Jane impresses me with her crisp scientific approach to her work. Yes, we all want the project to be a success, and who can argue with the dogs’ appeal? But, above all, we need to know whether these dogs will provide a workable solution. We need to know if they protect livestock and, if so, whether the herdsman will be less inclined to kill cats in retaliation. Knowing what works and what doesn’t work so we can try something else, offers the best hope for protecting big cats.
Stuart Pimm is the Doris Duke Professor of Conservation at the Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University.