Most of us are in shock to hear about Bibi and the Marsh lion pride poisoning, however, what are predator conflicts like for farmers.
It is heartbreaking to learn about yet another lion pride devastated by farmers. Some people react with rage cursing them for their actions. Killing the predators is seldom the only solution, however, at times farmers believe it is.
We had the opportunity to interview two farmers who with varying degrees of success have tried alternatives to shooting or poisoning when predator conflicts arise. However, most of us seldom consider their struggles, fears and challenges.
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Predator Conflicts: The Farmers’ Perspective
A bumpy two track road takes us to the Cattle post. It’s much smaller than I’d imagined with two huts, one enclosure housing about 12 head of cattle and a few odd goats. It is fenced with strong, probably three meter high poles and fitted with lights at each corner. The brush has been cleared for about 20 meters from around the boma making it harder for predators to hide.
One hut, which serves as the house, also has a small boma for people, dogs and a few chickens. A small vegetable garden lies between the huts.
Jeff and Mandela are awaiting our arrival and greet us warmly. Marnus and Russ go off to inspect the boma and the lights while Jeff escorts me into the small boma. He pulls up a roughly hewn bench and his best handmade chair for me.
Jeff tells me that he has been on this cattle post for years. The young people are not interested in farming anymore, they want to go to the city. So the older men are left to take care of the livestock. The cattle are not sold much for meat these days, too much foot-and-mouth disease in Botswana, the overseas market has dried up leaving only the over saturated local butchers.
“So why keep the cattle?” I ask. Jeff gives me his first big grin, “Because it shows I’m a man!”
Status appears to be the number one reason why these small farmers hold on, because besides selling an occasional cow for a funeral or to the local butcher they are not worth much as an investment anymore. Though Jeff does like thinking of his cattle as money in the bank.
The typical farmer in this part of Botswana has a small herd of cattle that roam the bush by day, and if they’re lucky are guarded by a cattle herder and brought to the safety of a boma/kraal for the night. However, many cattle wonder the bush (and the highways) day and night and are left open to being killed by vehicles and lions. What about fences? Well, in Botswana there are relatively few and humans, livestock and wildlife are free to intermingle, which of course is good and bad. Good for wildlife to migrate and go where there is food and water, and bad because once they get a taste for cattle and goats…
When asked about problems he has had with lions he says that just last night a large male came into the unfenced cattle post chasing one of his dogs. The lights went on and the siren went off and the lion retreated and the dog was unscathed.
Jeff confirms that loud noise and lights scare the lions away. However, he admits that it is still frightening to have a lion come so close. For there are times when the lions have clawed at the boma trying to get at his cattle. They are big, very big.
When I asked him if he was afraid the lions would harm him he said, “No, lions don’t eat people, they are scared of people,” but in the very same breath he says, “If they are hungry they will eat you.” However when I ask if he knows of anyone who has been eaten by a lion he says, “No!”
Before Marnus came and brought the lights and helped him erect the boma it was very bad with the lions. Now with the predator proof boma and lights the cattle are safe. However, I can tell living out here is still unnerving, and that sense of foreboding doesn’t go away.
One of the big problems at the moment for Jeff and Mandela is water. It has been very dry and they have to fetch water in big drums for the cattle and for them to drink. The lights for the boma are solar powered but for the huts they use paraffin lamps. All their meals are cooked over an open fire. Both Jeff and Mandela’s families live in the village proper, just the two of them live at the cattle post.
“What is the hardest thing about living in the bush?”
Without taking long to think about it Jeff says, “Being attacked by a lion!” Having spent a few nights in lion country unprotected in our roof top tent and feeling rather apprehensive, I got a taste of what it must be like living with this edge of fear constantly.
“What will happen to the cattle post when you get too old?” I ask.
“Maybe my kids will take over, maybe they will pay somebody to work here or then they will sell the cattle and goats.”
“What other work is there in the village?”
Jeff says that many work on the agriculture farms where they grow crops, but the pay is not good. Cattle can be sold for 3,000 Pula, when there are buyers, so from his perspective having cattle is the better deal.
I ask him what others in different parts of the world might need to know about life as a farmer in Botswana. He replies, “I don’t know how they are living, so I don’t know.”
This reminds me that we get used to our way of life, get used to our comfort zones, even if they are not necessarily comfortable. This explains why Marnus and others who address predator conflicts have a difficult time changing habits and traditions, no matter how outdated or unproductive they might be. Marnus tells us that to convince a farmer to build a boma, even if the materials are donated, is a huge challenge.
I can understand this a bit more now. While stopping off to grab some supplies in Windhoek a well-dressed gentleman approached us in the parking lot. “What does this helping people saving wildlife mean?” He asked alluding to the signage on the Landy.
After a few quick exchanges we discovered that he owns a farm up near Etosha Pan and runs about 100 head of cattle on it. Recently hyena have been on a killing spree. They come from as far as 20 kilometers away with their young ones. I asked him if he kept the cattle in a safe enclosure at night and if he had herders. He said, “No!” to both. Basically, he wanted the problem fixed without him changing his ways.
It’s no different with monkeys in suburban areas. People want the monkeys to go away before they consider securing their rubbish bins or putting monkey screens on the windows. To solve predator conflicts (human wildlife conflicts) we, the humans, must be willing to change our ways.
It’s now afternoon. Marnus is back at his camp going about his business. Russ and I drive into the village to the mechanic shop to find Mr. Ed. Mr. Ed is another farmer Marnus has worked with extensively. We drive into a lot with a large old building and a few cars in various state of repair scattered around. As we enter the almost empty building Mr. Ed comes out from behind a door to greet us. He escorts us to his small office and invites us to sit on the old couch. His wife quietly comes in to join us.
Within a few minutes I realize that Mr. Ed has much life experience and unlike some others is willing to look at a problem from all sides to find a solution. Like Jeff, Mr. Ed is a seasoned farmer, who keeps cattle because of the ‘man thing’ which he explains quite fully. Why don’t I let you hear it in his own words.
[Transcript for “Mr Ed on why men in Botswana keep cattle” not available please listen to the podcast]
Unlike Jeff, Mr. Ed moved his cattle closer in to the village three months ago. Apparently this is not a permanent solution as the rule laid down by the village council states that all livestock stays outside the village boundaries.
While at Jeff’s cattle post the lions are kept at bay by the lights and siren Mr. Ed did not have the same experience. Despite the lights and the boma the lion kept coming.
Mr. Ed talks about the lionesses arriving after dark and digging under the boma fences to get at the cattle. One night there were three lions inside and two outside. Another time when the Wildlife Department came they set up cages and trapped a lioness with her three cubs. Mr. Ed’s brow furrows, he didn’t think relocation was the answer either. Being quite knowledgeable about lions he is aware that lions need to be relocated with great care so they aren’t attacked by the resident lion pride.
Has he ever shot a lion? Yes, he has. Sometimes a farmer has to do what he has to do when lions are killing his cattle and the authorities don’t help. Sad thing these predator conflicts!
Are there other things Mr. Ed could have done to keep the lions away? Probably, however, a big part of his problem was keeping herders. With so many lions and with them coming around almost nightly it definitely takes nerves of steel to live alone in an unprotected hut. Supposedly his last herder was so frightened by a lion that came through the cattle post he slept upright with his back against the door of the hut. At first light he took off and never returned.
Why are the lion drawn to the cattle posts? Is it a lack of wild prey?
Marnus believes the wild animals are being attracted closer to the cattle posts and the safari lodges because of the waterholes. If the waterholes near to the livestock were closed, or moved much further out the natural prey would also move away, and the lion would follow.
Mr. Ed shared several items that may well help address the predator conflicts the farmers face in this part of Botswana.
- Better ability to communicate quickly with authorities and those that can come and render immediate help when lions are around.
- When the government deliberates such matters as predator conflicts they need to invite the farmers to give their input.
- Cattle need to be kept closer in where there are more humans, so village ordinances need to be changed to allow this.
- The Wildlife Department needs to document and keep records of the cattle on a farm so that when an animal is killed by a lion and carried off not to be found the farmer can still be compensated. (In Botswana farmers are compensated when a cow or bull is killed by a lion. Note, that doesn’t apply to other predators like hyena.)
- Fences around farms may help short term, but in dry areas the land will quickly become overgrazed creating another problem.
- The Wildlife Department needs to reward those who really save the wildlife and not those who do outstanding office work. “Wildlife is not office work you have to be in the field”
Before meeting Marnus and these interviews with the farmers I thought predator conflicts were relatively simple issues to address… just keep the cattle in a safe place. Well, it is so much more complex and complicated than that isn’t it?
There are traditions to break, laws to change, officials to mobilize and bottom line, the willingness to live amongst the lions.
However, before we lose hope, just maybe by supporting people like Marnus and the team at Walking For Lions we can stop lions like Bibi and the Mara pride in Kenya from being poisoned by irate farmers.