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From foe to friend: how car­ni­vores could help farmers

pub­lished 14 March 2018 | mod­i­fied 14 March 2018

Authors: Sam Williams, Lourens Swanepoel, and Steven Bel­main

large spotted genetSpecies like the large-​spotted or Cape genet (Genetta tig­rina) were com­monly found in crop­ping areas.
Source: Shut­ter­stock.

Across the globe, the num­bers of car­ni­vore species such as leop­ards, din­goes, and spec­ta­cled bears are rapidly declin­ing. The areas they occupy are also get­ting smaller each year. This is a prob­lem, because car­ni­vores are incred­i­bly impor­tant to ecosys­tems as they may pro­vide ser­vices such as bio­di­ver­sity enhance­ment, dis­ease reg­u­la­tion, and improv­ing car­bon stor­age. And that, in turn, is impor­tant to human well­be­ing.

But con­vinc­ing peo­ple to con­serve wildlife based on these indi­rect ben­e­fits can be chal­leng­ing — par­tic­u­larly in the case of farm­ers. After all, car­ni­vores such as leop­ards can pose a threat to live­stock, liveli­hoods, and some­times even lives. So inter­ac­tions between farm­ers and car­ni­vores have typ­i­cally been framed as a conflict.

Farm­ers often over­es­ti­mate these threats. For many, the response is to kill car­ni­vores — even those that are not eat­ing live­stock. This is one of the main rea­sons why car­ni­vores are in cri­sis.

This could change if peo­ple were aware of the more tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits that car­ni­vores could pro­vide. Our new study showed that far from caus­ing prob­lems for farm­ers, car­ni­vores could actu­ally be ben­e­fi­cial by con­trol­ling rodent pests.

Rodents and car­ni­vores
There’s a des­per­ate need for farm­ers to con­trol rodents because they destroy 15% of the crops grow­ing in African fields. The most com­mon solu­tion is to use poi­son. But this can be expen­sive and can kill many other species. On top of this, rodents even­tu­ally become resistant.

We set out to find out whether car­ni­vores that eat rodents were found nat­u­rally on small­holder farms. We set cam­era traps on land used for crop­ping in South Africa, areas used to graze cat­tle (which was less dis­turbed than crop­land), and among houses in vil­lage settlements.

Cape foxA cape fox (Vulpes chama) on a maize farm feed­ing on Ger­bil­lis­cus, a com­mon rodent pest in South Africa’s grain areas.
Source: Lourens Swanepoel, license CC BY

We found nine species of car­ni­vores in the cam­era trap pic­tures. Rodents are an impor­tant part of the diet of seven of the nine, includ­ing the striped pole­cat, honey bad­ger, and African civet. To our sur­prise, we found that the high­est num­ber of car­ni­vore species were often found in the crop­ping area, which included species such as the large spot­ted genet and slen­der mongoose.

So not only are car­ni­vores present on farm­ers’ fields, but it’s likely that they are also con­trol­ling rodents that would oth­er­wise dam­age crops. But more research is needed to con­firm this.

Infographic carnivore rodent pest controlInfo­graphic sum­maris­ing the find­ings of the study of rodent con­trol by car­ni­vores on South African farms.
Source: Sam Williams.

We set about estab­lish­ing whether peo­ple were aware of the poten­tial con­nec­tion between the pres­ence of car­ni­vores on their farms and rodent con­trol. Dur­ing a series of inter­views it quickly became clear that even though some peo­ple believed that car­ni­vores ate rodents, they still had neg­a­tive per­cep­tions and often killed them.

Big poten­tial
The idea to use nat­ural pre­da­tion to con­trol rodents is not new. But to use mam­malian preda­tors to assist in bio­log­i­cal con­trol of rodent pests has often been neglected in con­ser­va­tion cir­cles. As such there is great poten­tial for car­ni­vores to help farm­ers, but for this to work, farm­ers would need to stop killing them.

Chang­ing these per­cep­tions would take a lot of work. But efforts to change African per­cep­tions about preda­tory birds, par­tic­u­larly barn owls, have been suc­cess­ful in some South African town­ships. Suc­cess­ful approaches to change com­mu­nity atti­tudes has often relied on edu­ca­tion pro­grammes through local schools. Bring­ing owls, snakes and other preda­tors to pri­mary schools can help raise aware­ness among chil­dren, who then go home and edu­cate their par­ents, ulti­mately break­ing down widely held superstitions.

If edu­ca­tion cam­paigns could con­vince farm­ers to kill fewer car­ni­vores, car­ni­vores might just repay the favour by doing a bet­ter job of con­trol­ling rodents in crop fields. This could lead to less reliance on poi­sons, avoid­ing unnec­es­sary killings and costs.

If suc­cess­ful, this could help farm­ers to save money, while work­ing in a much more envi­ron­men­tally friendly way. This really could be a win-​win sit­u­a­tion for both peo­ple and wildlife, and it shows that inter­ac­tions between peo­ple and car­ni­vores on farm­land can be much more nuanced and pos­i­tive than the tra­di­tional image of conflict.

Find­ing new ways in which peo­ple and wildlife can coex­ist will be essen­tial to lessen the impact of the grow­ing human pop­u­la­tion on the ecosys­tems on which humans depend.

The Conversation

This arti­cle was orig­i­nally pub­lished on The Con­ver­sa­tion.

(Source: THE CON­SER­VA­TION, From foe to friend: how car­ni­vores could help farm­ers, 05.03.2018)

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