In parts of Africa where grazing livestock and hungry lions roam the same terrain, cows often end up on the big cats' menu, and that feeds the flames of human-wildlife conflict. Now, a new solution to the problem is being tested out in Botswana – and it involves paint, stamps and some scary-ass cows.

The idea behind the i-cow project is ingeniously simple and just a little bit wacky: using a basic, handmade stamp, livestock owners "brand" cows' backsides with painted-on eyes. It's all about intimidation. 

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Eye see you, lion. Image: Ben Yexley

For ambush predators like lions, the element of surprise is key to a successful kill, and sensing that they've been spotted as they stalk a target often causes the cats to abandon the hunt. This gave one researcher working in rural Botswana an idea: for cows grazing in lion territory, a painted-on "I see you" might just be enough to, quite literally, save their butts. 

"Just as eye-patterns on insects deter birds, and wearing a mask on the back of your head can prevent attacks by tigers, perhaps lions can be deterred from attacking livestock by exploiting this psychological phenomenon," explains conservation biologist Neil Jordan, who is spearheading the project. If his strategy proves effective, it could help to save both the prey and the predators. 

While the killing of lions for sport gets plenty of media attention, Africa's iconic big cats are facing many other serious problems – including retaliatory attacks by villagers for whom these predators are a very real threat.  

A lioness shot by a villager in northern Botswana. Retaliatory killings are a major threat to Africa's lion populations. Image: Screengrab/Neil Jordan

Lions' appetite for cattle, particularly around the edges of Africa's national parks, puts them in conflict with nearby communities – and the results are deadly. Livestock is a precious commodity and repeated losses can have a devastating impact, so villagers often take drastic measures to protect their herds. Such retaliatory killings are a major cause of lion decline: for every cow taken, one lion is killed in retaliation, Jordan estimates.

"Farmers currently have very few effective tools to prevent this devastating lion-livestock conflict. Unfortunately, shooting or poisoning predators is not only used as a last resort – farmers often feel it is their only resort."

Jordan has been studying large carnivores in the Okavango Delta for the past four years while working with the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, and it was the killing of two lionesses at a local village that drove home the need for a non-lethal solution. "Villagers felt they were helpless to prevent attacks, and I too was short of solutions and feeling useless. Later, watching a lion abandon a hunt the moment the impala saw it, my "i-cow" idea was 'born'," he says. 

Because the only tools required are cheap acrylic paint and a homemade stamp, i-cow promises to be the kind of low-tech, low-cost solution that can work to help subsistence farmers and lions co-exist.

So far, a ten-week pilot study conducted last year suggests the eye spots are working. Teaming up with a local farmer, Jordan stamped some of the cows in a herd with the eye markings, while leaving the rest unmarked as a control. "Three unpainted cows were taken, while all of our painted i-cows in the same herd survived," he says. 

With results looking positive, the team has successfully crowdfunded the next stage of the study. As before, cow test subjects will be selectively stamped, and the animals will also get GPS trackers to record their movements. One lion will also be fitted with a tracking collar. "It's very important that we avoid selling desperate farmers false hope, and so we really need to confirm that i-cows are actually effective before we present it to farmers as a solution," explains Jordan.

Populations of African lions have declined by 42 percent in the past two decades, and researchers warn they will continue to plummet without urgent conservation action. Botswana is one of just four remaining lion strongholds, so protecting these big cats here is key to their survival as a species.   


Top header image: Meng Zhang, Flickr