Berkeley - To Americans raised on the lore of the Old West, the task of a University of California, Berkeley, wildlife specialist looks like a mission impossible: to help ranchers in Kenya save the animals that are killing their cattle and sheep.
But that is the aim of Laurence Frank, research associate at UC Berkeley's Field Station for Behavioral Research.
Frank departs next week (Monday, May 15) for his third year in the Laikipia region of Kenya where he leads a pioneering effort to make peace between wild carnivores and the livestock who graze over a one-million-acre region in the shadow of Mt. Kenya.
Unlike American cattlemen who once shot every carnivore in sight, the Laikipia ranchers not only have hung up their rifles, but they are actively engaged in helping Frank track and observe big predators. They even encourage native wildlife by grazing their herds on the land lightly, so that some food is left for wild animals.
"These ranch owners are incredible," said Frank, who has been a researcher with a hyena colony at the UC Berkeley field station. "They take huge losses in order not to wipe out the predators. We couldn't do this project without them."
According to Frank's survey of ranches in the Laikipia region, the average commercial ranch loses approximately $11,000 per year to predators, not just from killed livestock but from efforts to prevent attacks. That adds up to an average of seven and a half cattle, 20 sheep and one camel per year killed just by lions on each ranch, said Frank. He and his colleagues are studying seven other predator species in the region: cheetahs, leopards, wild dogs, two species of hyenas, jackals and the bat-eared fox.
Frank said wildlife is increasing in Laikipia, the only place in Kenya where numbers are growing. The ranchers have been able to protect their black rhinoceroses, and even the highly endangered African wild dog is coming back, years after being exterminated in the wild. A new pack has just established itself in the region.
Frank's Laipikia Predator Project is one of a few projects in the world, and the only one in Africa, aimed at preserving predators on ranchland. Other efforts are being made to preserve jaguars on Latin American ranches and tigers in Asia.
"No one in Africa has ever looked at the relationship between carnivores and livestock, except for one study of cheetahs," said Frank.
"Most of the attention is paid to preserving large animals in parks. But it is apparent to wildlife conservationists that protecting animals within parks is not enough," he said. "Eventually they will disappear if they are not protected outside the park.
"When an animal sticks his nose outside the park, he is likely to get shot or hit by a car. If an epidemic or severe drought comes along, that whole population is finished, unless you can recolonize the park from the outside."
So far, Frank has been able to get a rough estimate of the number of carnivores in the area -about 1,200 - and has placed radio-tracking collars on 40 of them. Following the animals by air, with planes piloted by the ranchers, Frank has discovered that the carnivores are highly dependent on the commercial ranches. They wander from ranch to ranch, but don't leave the ones that are predator-friendly. Some of the lions, each wandering over 40 to 300 square miles, also are threatened by rabies and other diseases. This summer, Frank will have his own plane, a Cessna 182 supplied by an Austrian couple who volunteer as pilots on the project.
But the critical work is focused on developing methods that prevent attacks on livestock. Frank's Kenyan student, Mordecai Ogada, has found, for instance, that the thickness of the "bomas" - corrals made of thornbush - may be key to maintaining the peace. The bomas need to be strong enough to prevent cattle that are panicked by lions from storming out of the corrals where they become vulnerable to the predators.
Fortunately for conservation efforts, traditional African husbandry has evolved in response to constant predator pressure and cattle theft. Rather than being allowed to wander widely, as in the American West, cattle are kept in tight herds and watched constantly. At night they are put into the makeshift corrals which protect the livestock - if they can be prevented from stampeding.
In one of the more ususual findings, a local ranch manager discovered that lions, prevented from seeing sheep inside a corral bounded by only wire and burlap, simply walked away from the livestock. More research is needed, but the possibility that lions depend heavily on eyesight alone for predation is surprising, said Frank.
"We are using Laikipia as a laboratory to study conservation methods that can be applied throughout Africa," said Frank, whose research is supported by several conservation groups and the National Cancer Institute. The project also is studying feline immunodeficiency virus, an analog of HIV that is found in wild cats and hyenas.
Ultimately, the aim is to improve conditions for ecotourism and sport hunting, on the premise that unless people, especially poor African herders, can make money from wildlife, the animals are a liability and will be eliminated.
"A lion that kills your cattle or an elephant that tramples your crops is a huge liability," said Frank. "But if you can attract visitors willing to pay thousands of dollars to see the animals, or tens of thousands to shoot one, they quickly become an asset."
Sport hunting may not appeal to many people, but the alternative, said Frank, "is to turn the whole thing into farmland."
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