Picture this: it’s a beautiful, starry night in the Namibian desert. A livestock farmer is gathering his herd back into the kraal for the night.
By, 15 Nov 2019
Suddenly, one of his lambs falls behind the rest of the group, slipping under the farmer’s watchful gaze. A cheetah is on the prowl, approaching the lone, defenceless animal. But suddenly, before the cheetah can begin his race, an imposing figure steps between the sheep and the predator. The brave dog lets out a resounding growl and bark, standing his ground. At the sight of this terrifying beast, the cheetah immediately runs the other way, never to approach the well-guarded farm again.
Thirty years ago, the situation might’ve unfolded very differently. The farmer would’ve probably not owned a dog. Without a dog to protect him, the lamb would’ve most likely been killed by the cheetah, putting the farmer’s livelihood at serious risk. The farmer would’ve probably taken a gun with him next time he took his herd out to graze, just in case. And the next time he’d see a cheetah, he would shoot and kill it.
This is what happened to about 8,000 cheetahs in Namibia in the 1980’s alone. Today, there are fewer than 7,500 cheetahs left in the wild, making them Africa’s most endangered big cat. Other factors threaten their existence, including bush encroachment and illegal wildlife trade, but human-wildlife conflict is what caused half of the Namibian cheetah population to disappear in the 20th century.
Cheetah Conservation and the Human-Wildlife Conflict
Hidden away in the vast expanses of the Namibian desert is a small oasis, a paradise for animals and humans alike. The Cheetah Conservation Fund, founded in 1990, is dedicated to saving the cheetah in the wild.
The Cheetah Conservation Fund has built many projects to help save the fastest land mammal in the world. These include research, education, rescue and rehabilitation, habitat restoration, and mitigation of human-wildlife conflict, to name a few.
Though you would think everything at the Centre revolves around the cheetah, this is not the case. It takes a whole team to save a species, and who better to save a cat than a dog?
2019 has been dubbed ‘The Year of the Dog’ at CCF, because it is the 25th anniversary of the Livestock Guarding Dog Program.
When CCF was founded 30 years ago, its founder, Dr. Laurie Marker, knew problems facing the cheetah had to be dealt with at their root first. One of her biggest challenges was mitigating the conflict between farmers and the predator.
Today, the farmer/predator relationship has changed drastically in Namibia, and notably so thanks to CCF’s Livestock Guarding Dog Program.
Speaking to Coastal Canine Mag, Dr. Laurie Marker says:
“We are more convinced than ever that dogs are man’s best friend for a very good reason. They have the ability to think and act independently and recognise our own limited abilities to properly care for livestock. They are smart, attentive, and so protective! Whether or not they are aware, they are the cheetah’s best ally, too.”
The Livestock Guarding Dog Program: Namibia's Diamond in the Rough
Dr. Laurie Marker had 10 puppies transported to Namibia in 1994, which kickstarted CCF’s Kangal Shepherd dog breeding program. Originally, two separate breeds – Anatolian Shepherds and Kangal dogs – made up what is now known simply at CCF and by breeders across the globe as the Kangal Shepherd. Indeed, the two breeds are bred to almost identical standards, and so, are now considered one dog.
This ancient breed was used in Turkey to protect herds of livestock from bears and wolves. The dogs have short coats and strong bodies, which are perfect for resisting the somewhat harsh Namibian climate and terrain. They are also independent thinkers who do not have to rely on humans to do their job, and they have a loyal disposition – perfect for protecting herds. Their large size and imposing bark are enough to ward off predators, especially cheetahs, who are quite skittish.
At the Centre, you may come across 15 dogs or so. They live at CCF’s model farm, among more than 400 sheep and goats.
The majority of them are breeding dogs, which means they will live at the Centre their whole lives, and be mums or dads to several litters throughout their lifetime. They will also help to protect the livestock that lives at CCF’s ‘model farm’. During the day, the large herds are taken out to graze in the bush, where an LGD’s presence is much needed! These dogs love nothing more than a day out in the bush protecting their beloved herd!
If you’re lucky, you may come across a litter when you visit CCF! Litters are usually 5-10 puppies in size and will grow up in a goat pen with their mum and siblings until they are approximately 10 weeks old and are ready to live on their farm.
Calum O’Flaherty, who moved from Reading, UK, to manage the LGD program with Stella Emvula, told Wamiz:
“It’s always amazing to have puppies here at CCF, they’re the best and also the hardest part of my job – all I want to do is give them attention but they’re going out to be working dogs so we have to keep them as least habituated to humans as possible.”
The pups may be small in size, but they are big in personality! They are definitely a handful!
Once they are old enough, the puppies are allocated to farmers for a placement fee of around 1,500 Namibian dollars (roughly £85).
The charge on the dog ensures that the farmer is making an investment, and acts as proof that he will be able to care for his animal throughout its life. This cost also covers a (doggie) lifetime supply of vaccines and de-wormer!
Once the puppies arrive in their new home, they begin to bond with their farmer’s livestock, and soon, they are protecting them like they would their own pack.
CCF doesn’t forget about the puppies once they leave the Centre. Gebhardt Nikanor, a CCF educator and doggie guardian angel, spends most of his time driving across Namibia to check on the Centre’s placed dogs. He performs a first visit 3 months after the puppy has been placed, visits again 3 months after that, and, just to be sure, checks again 6 months later. On his visits, Gebhardt ensures that training is on-going and that the dog is well cared for. He also provides the necessary vaccinations and any other treatments the dog may need. Once he is confident that the dogs are well taken care of, he continues his rounds with yearly visits.
With a dog on their farm, farmers report an 80% to 100% drop in predation rates, thus reducing pressure on them to kill or capture cheetahs. Since the program was founded, more than 650 CCF dogs have been bred, trained, and placed; contributing to saving hundreds of cheetahs in the wild.
Christiaan Haikali, a Namibian farmer who received his Livestock Guarding Dog, Captain, in 2016, can’t say enough good things about the program:
“The presence of my Livestock Guarding Dog is definitely an advantage. The number of animals I have lost to predators has significantly decreased. Jackals can only be heard in a distance. The bond between the goats and sheep with the dog is a plus point. Because of my Captain, I am a happy farmer.”
The program is so popular that other African countries are beginning to implement it as well, and the waiting list for a Namibian farmer wanting to get a puppy is around 2 years long.
Welfare First, Work Second
You may come across some ‘outcasts’ at CCF too. Some dogs do not fit the LGD role well. Some are too silly and playful, while others are slightly too predatorial to protect. These dogs return to the Centre and are put up for adoption.
Unfortunately, some farmers are not able to care for their LGDs properly either. The image of the dog is very different in Namibia than it is in our Western culture. For instance, some farmers may not feed their dogs appropriate or sufficiently nutritional food. Luckily, if Gebhardt feels during one of his visits that a dog is in poor condition, he will bring the dog back to the Centre so it can be checked by a vet, cared for, and later re-homed as a working dog.
“These dogs are incredible – they have the instinct to work and protect – once they’re rehomed on a new farm, they spend just a couple of weeks bonding with the new herd, and then they will protect them as well as they have done any herd before! They’re so intelligent!”, says Calum.
You may also see some altogether different dogs at CCF, like Belgian Malinois dogs Enyakwa and Gamena. These dogs are trained to help wildlife biologists in the field to find things such as carcasses or scat (poo), which can be taken back to the Centre as samples for research purposes. The CCF scat detection dogs are specially trained to detect cheetah poo – and won’t stop for any other kind of scat.
It’s not hard to see why CCF is celebrating dogs this year. Whether it’s the LGDs that humbly save cheetahs throughout Namibia, the ones who contribute puppies to the program, the ones who educate visitors at the centre, or even the Malinois who bring back precious information to the lab – there is no place like CCF to see first-hand how dogs can truly be man’s (and cat’s) best friends.
“I may be biased, but I say dogs are the best section at CCF – having the cheetahs here is cool – but I’d much rather see them out in the wild, and it will be mine and Stella’s dogs that do that!”, says Calum proudly.
If you would like to meet the dogs yourself (visitors, interns, volunteers, and students are always welcome), you can visit CCF’s website here.
If you would like to donate to the program to help save the cheetah, you can do so through here.
We thank all of CCF staff (human and dog) for the hard work they do in protecting the beautiful cheetah species. You are all heroes!