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Study entailing painting eyes on cows' backsides rolled out in the Mara

A cow with eyes painted on its backside. [Caroline Chebet, Standard]

An ambitious project of painting spots that resemble eyes on the backside of cattle to scare predators has been rolled out in villages bordering Maasai Mara National Game Reserve.

The new anti-predator trick is part of a study set to run for six months to determine the effectiveness of painting eye spots to create the perception that the predator has been seen by the prey, making them abandon the hunt.

The study, which is currently being undertaken in Nkoilale sub-location is an innovative collaboration between Enkaretoni Community-based organization and Nature Kenya, a conservation organization. The artificial eye spots are expected to deter predators in a move to stem cases of human-wildlife conflicts.

“Cases of predators preying on livestock are really high because cattle mingle graze in the same areas where wildlife roam. These cases happen a lot during the day and cattle are the easier target for predators like lions and cheetahs because they cannot run as fast as animals like gazelles,” Elijah Sikona, a project officer with Enkaretoni Community-based organization.

The cases, as per their records can go as high as 100 cases in three months in Nkoilale sub-location alone. And while Nkoilale is one of the hotspot zones of human-wildlife conflicts, other areas like Ololaimutia, Sekenani and other areas around the conservancies have borne the brunt.

“We had to come up with a consolation scheme where pastoralists who lose their livestock are given some money, amounting to half the market price as consolation, but the cases are still high, especially during the rainy season and when wildlife like wildebeests and zebras have migrated to Serengeti, leaving livestock as easy targets,” Sikona said.

For the loss of a cow, a pastoralist is given Ksh 15,000 in the newly revised rates that took effect this month and Ksh 4,000 for a sheep and Sh 5,000 for a goat.

“Every year, we spent cover Ksh 1 Million in the small area we operate in yet we do not pay compensation, we only offer consolation fee that amounts to half the market price of livestock lost,” he added.

But the burden of human-wildlife conflicts has stemmed into a much bigger problem in the Mara ecosystem. It has resulted in retaliatory attacks where farmers sometimes resort to poisoning the predators. This not only kills the predators, but it also kills scavengers like the vultures and hyenas.

Over the years, vultures, despite the huge role they play in preventing the spread of zoonotic diseases in the Mara ecosystem, have recorded sharp declines with poisoning blamed as the major cause.

A cow with eyes painted on its backside. [Caroline Chebet, Standard]

Already, Ruppell’s vulture, White Headed vulture, Egyptian vulture and Cape vultures have experienced declines of between 92 and 97 per cent in the last 50 years while hooded vulture, Lappet-faced vulture and Bearded vulture have experienced declines of between 80 per cent and 70 per cent during the same period.

“To reduce cases of poisoning and save vultures, awareness is key which has greatly worked. We have also incorporated technologies like predator-proof bomas through partnerships with Mara Predator project. This new approach of anti-predator eyespots is a study which we are undertaking for the next six months with Enkaretoni CBO to determine the effectiveness of reducing cases of cattle being preyed on,” Rebecca Ikachoi, Vulture Liaison officer at Nature Kenya said.

Currently, the study is being conducted on 10 households with a range of herd sizes of between 80 and 100 cows per household.

While applying eye-spots in Mara ecosystem to solve the deep-rooted challenge might be among the first of its kind of approaches in the country, researchers in Okavango delta in Botswana tried the ‘cow eyes’ approach in 2020.

In the study, none of the 683 cows that had eye paintings was preyed on while 15 of the 835 that were not painted were killed by predators although the cattle were foraged in the same area and moved similarly, suggesting they were exposed to similar risk.

“Our results suggest that artificial eye spots were successful in deterring ambush predators (lions and leopards) from attacking cattle on which they were painted during the study period. In fact, none of the 683 painted ‘eye-cows’ was killed by ambush predators during the four-year study, while 15 (of 835) unpainted, and four (of 543) cross-painted cattle were killed,” the study reads.

Painting of the eyespots is done two times a month as the paint fades away after two weeks. Black and white paints are used to paint the behind of the selected cattle. In a herd, half the cattle are painted while the other half is left behind.

This, they say, will help in the determination of the effectiveness of the artificial eyespots in reducing attacks on a herd and also individual cows with the eyespots.

“At the end of the study, we will now be able to tell if the eye spots helped in reducing the attacks. This method had been tried in other countries but the landscapes are different and trying it out in Mara will help us tell if such can be rolled out to other areas to reduce these cases that will also help in reducing wildlife poisoning cases in the Mara,” Ikachoi said.

To paint the eyespots, eye craft stencils are used for painting where black or white paints are applied.

A cow with eyes painted on its backside. [Caroline Chebet, Standard]

The selected ones are known to be always at the periphery of the herd to determine the effectiveness of the artificial eye spots.

But the study, which began in May and is set to be concluded by November this year, is already eliciting reviews from pastoralists who think that the approach would be effective.

“Actually, this approach seems to be working. I have had the experience where the lion was almost attacking a cow but instead ran away, something that was quite peculiar,” Kaitet Ole Gilisho, Nkoilale sub-location assistant chief said.

Out of his 100 cattle, Nkoilale said 50 have been painted as part of the study which he said, might solve the long-standing human-wildlife conflicts in the hotspot zone.

“Seeing the lions run away just by looking at the cow is something amazing. I have been recording a lot of cases being experienced here. In a week, almost four cases are recorded but we hope this approach might finally solve the challenge,” he said.