“Howzit? How are the cheetahs?” ask my new friends in Cape Town. “I’m going to Bray for a few days.” “Where??” When even a South African hasn’t heard of this place, I know I’m in for another adventure. Bray is a frontier post located 200 meters from the border of Botswana in the Southern Kalahari, the North-West Province of South Africa. There are an estimated 500-800 free ranging cheetah in the country, many of them residing in this area which is also populated by a large number of commercial livestock, game and hunting farms. For generations cheetah and other predators have been killed in the name of protecting livestock, but there is a solution where both humans and predators can co-exist.
Filled to the rafters with dog food, Cyril prepares to deliver to over 11 farms in the NW Province, South Africa. I flew into Kimberley to meet Cyril Stannard, Anatolian Project Coordinator for Cheetah Outreach. Cyril is driving a large pickup (bakkie as they’re called in Africa) filled to the rafters with dog food leaving just enough space for an empty animal crate. This crate won’t stay empty for long. Cyril implements Cheetah Outreach’s privately funded Livestock Guarding Dog Program (LGD for short), delivering Anatolian Shepherd puppies to farms willing to participate in a program of non-lethal predator management. In short, this means co-existing with the cheetah. The puppies are donated and provided
The Livestock Guardian
The Anatolian Shepherd is a known as one of the best guard dogs on the planet. A Turkish breed that goes back thousands of years, the Anatolian does not herd livestock like a Border Collie or other sheepdog, but rather stands its ground with their ‘family’ against any predator that threatens them. Cheetah Conservation Fund, Cheetah Outreach and Cheetah Conservation Botswana are among the many NGOs that offer LGDs to farmers, and their popularity is growing not only in Africa but in the Western United States as well. Cyril’s job is a life on the road. He visits all the farms who have dogs from the program and checks on their progress, drops off food, and talks with the farmers about successes and pitfalls. This truck has seen a lot of dusty roads in the Kalahari. Farms are huge properties spread far from each other. Not everyone in this region has joined Cheetah Outreach’s LGD program. One glance at the map and its easy to see the participating farms are a drop in the bucket, but a hopeful one where neighbors can influence neighbors. Who wouldn’t want to share success and money-saving management tactics?
Outside Kimberly we meet up with commercial breeder Hannelie Liebenberg to receive three Anatolian Shepherd puppies just seven weeks old. The over-the-top cute dogs are born in what is called supportive conditions. The mother gives birth in an enclosure with sheep or goats, and the dogs are raised with livestock. At seven weeks these little fluffballs are ready to bond with their flock for life. They’ll grow to nearly 130lbs and view their flock as their family, guarding against predators day and night. For now it is hard to remain professional and not squeal over the little guys. Back on the road, with puppies in the crate barking loudly, we make another stop at a grocery during the long drive to Bray. Panicked word from the Tapama Lodge which will be our home base for the week, is that visiting workmen, malarial sprayers, are devouring all the lodge’s food. Being so remote, replenishing supplies is no small matter so we pick up loaves of bread and other items for their kitchen.
This is truly one of the more isolated parts of the country. There are no daily newspapers and scant cell phone coverage. Free ranging cattle peruse the dusty road in front of Bray’s only gas station. While Cyril fills the tank in preparation of hundreds of miles of driving per day, I find amusement watching a dung beetle roll its bit of you-know-what around the pump.
“We are cheetah friendly”. The sign hangs on the gates of farms who participate in Cheetah Outreach’s Livestock Guardian Dog Program. In a land where commercial farming has encroached on wildlife for generations, certain NGOs and farmers are working together to create new ways of solving the problems of predation. Cheetah Outreach comes not from an ‘us or them’ perspective but rather ‘live and let live’.
Children play in the irrigation tank to find relief in the heat of the dayI’ve been accompanying Cyril Stannard, Anatolian Project Coordinator, on the road in South Africa’s NorthWest Province as he delivers Anatolian Shepherd puppies and checks on grown livestock guard dogs in the dusty southern tip of the Kalahari. It’s barely nine am and the heat is rising. Neels Grobelaar’s children are taking turns diving into the irrigation tank to keep cool. Neels see cheetah tracks from time to time but nothing substantial and is a very supportive participant in the LGD program, but he hasn’t had an easy time. When we arrived he had some bad news for Cyril, and with a heavy heart he tells us his dog and two cows were been killed by a black mamba, one of the deadliest snakes in Africa. Prior to this incident, he lost three other livestock guard dogs to various tragedy; one to a car accident, another young dog trampled in between quarreling cattle, and a third choked to death in an illegally set wire snare on a nearby farm. No one is immune to the deep sadness of losing an animal, yet after all this tragedy Neels still believes in the program but he wants to take a break before taking on another dog. This is a difficult way to start our day and demonstrates that this solution is not a magic bullet. It requires perseverance, something Neels does not lack. Convincing farmers to take on this method isn’t as easy when some consider the immediacy of shooting a damage-causing animal over the time and commitment of a livestock guard dog. However, the results of a successful dog far exceed the random shoot-and-kill tactic of the past in terms of protecting farmers’ investments. This won’t be the only loss we encounter. Since the Anatolian Shepherd’s job is to protect their flock from predators, they’re out in the wild around the clock and the stakes are high. We learn that another farmer’s dog was killed in a fight with a warthog. Despite this news, each farmer who has lost a dog requests another. They are not going to go back to the risks faced to their sheep, goats and cattle prior to owning a livestock guardian animal. On a farm near the town of Brisbane, farm manager Johan van Heerden told of his guardian dog who fell prey to a black mamba. Driving from farm to farm, the landscape is a blur of bush, fences, soft dusty earth and the occasional pickup truck or laborer on horseback. Cyril tells me the horse is making a return in recent years as the cost of petrol rises. The horse makes a return to livestock farming as the cost of petrol rises in South Africa
After hours on the road, something completely surreal breaks up the scenery, a high-rise building in the middle of nowhere. Even stranger is the town of Pomfret which lies just a few miles beyond this structure. At first glance Pomfret is a ghost town. Cliché’s like ‘eerie’ and ‘zombie movie set’ run through my head. There are spray-painted signs begging God for help, smashed windows and houses without roofs. There are no services, but there are people who live here. The tall building in the distance is an abandoned asbestos mine.
Abandoned building in Pomfret, South Africa
Pomfret was created to mine asbestos, but now it is the home of the remnants of the 32nd Battalion and their families. Known for the role they played in the 1992 shootings of civilians in the settlement of Phola Park, the unit was disbanded in 1993 and retired to Pomfret. Fighting on the wrong side of history these unemployed mercenaries and military live in a desperate state of poverty. As we drive through, the only human around is an elderly woman tending a field next to a rotting municipal building. There is a makeshift tent structure next the mine but we don’t drive close and frankly I’m OK with keeping our distance. The single road that leads to Gerbus van der Merwe’s farm runs through Pomfret. “God with us” is spray-painted over a sign in Pomfret, South Africa
The heaviness of Pomfret’s surroundings lighten once we arrive at the van der Merwe farm. Workers are preparing to bring cattle to auction when we arrive. He eagerly accepts the puppy and looks forward to the results as his son shyly sizes up this new addition.
Gerbus van der Merwe holds his young son and new livestock guardian dog in the NW Province of South Africa
Driving on, we are surrounded by game farms, some for hunting but not all. A constant feature in the landscape is the fences. They cannot be ignored, extending in every direction, electrified to keep the game in. Should a predator work its way through one of these game hunting fences they can be there for good. Most of the time there is no escape, however a group of four cheetah were said to have chased an antelope into a fence and knocked it down. Nothing is indestructible in Africa.
The asbestos mine outside Pomfret is a dot on the horizon
On this day two full grown bushbuck have escaped a private game farm. Their tracks are all over the road, fenced in by being fenced out from all sides as there is another privately owned farm across the way with their own electrified barriers. We pass a truck driving on the inside of the fence with laborers standing in the back searching for the runaway game. Bushbuck have been known to run themselves to death and on this road there is no alternative. There is nowhere to go. The farm workers will shoot them or they will run, and continue running down the sandy kalahari road, fences on either side. Unless by some merciful fortune they make their way through a non-electrified fence miles away they are the running dead.
After another farm visit to deliver food to the dogs we drive back down the same stretch. The two panicked bushbuck bound past us, running furiously in the opposite direction. Cyril Stannard of Cheetah Outreach checks up on the condition of placed Anatolian Shepherd livestock guardian dogs.
I ask Cyril if owners could agree to create co-operatives and tear down the fences. Wouldn’t it mean more game, easier on predation and loss, and possibly bring in more money? (cue outsider’s ‘aha I have the answer’ speculations) He informs me it isn’t such an easy answer. The culture of farming is very individualistic and one that doesn’t take to outside ‘advice’ so easily. The ideas have to come from within and would mean a lot of complex agreements between neighbors. The same goes for livestock guardian dogs. Communities respond by seeing results from their neighbors, family and friends.
Niel Fourie’s family greets their puppy from Cheetah Outreach
The last puppy delivered proves his breeding right before our eyes. Trembling and scared, he meets his flock of sheep who are far less frightened than him. He tries to run but curiosity wins out over fear. After a few attempts to get him comfortable the farmer decides to give him a break and place him outside the enclosure. We turn our around and walk back to the farmhouse. Cyril looks back one last time and watches as the puppy discovers a tiny hole in the fence and rejoins the sheep. He’s found his family, and he’ll protect them for life.
Credit: Marcy Mendelson © 2012 / Cheetah-Watch.com/ @ http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/12/26/we-are-cheetah-friendly-part-ii/
Marcy Mendelson is a conservation photographer on a journey to bring the stories of cheetah conservation and human / wildlife conflict to global eyes. She reports on co-existence success in the midst of the hardscrabble life of the big cats as they struggle for survival in the 21st century.