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Study Finds Painting Eyes On Cows' Butts Can Save Their Lives


A new study finds a colorful way to keep cattle safe from predators and predators safe from people might actually work. Farmers in northern Botswana let their cows roam and graze during the day, but that was leaving livestock at the mercy of attacks by lions, leopards and other carnivores. And when a farmer loses a cow, the village will often hunt down the big cat. It's one reason lion populations have plunged in the past few decades in Africa. Enter a pair of conservation biologists from Australia.

CAMERON RADFORD: Hi. My name's Cameron Radford. I'm a Ph.D. candidate at UNSW Sydney and a conservation biologist.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: UNSW is the University of New South Wales.

NEIL JORDAN: My name's Neil Jordan. I'm a lecturer at UNSW Sydney and a conservation biologist at Taronga Conservation Society Australia.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As clashes between the cowherders and big cats in Botswana grew, the pair wanted to see if there was a way to help cattle and carnivores coexist. Here's Neil Jordan.

JORDAN: Lions and leopards, along with a number of other big cats, are ambush predators. So I came up with the idea that because those species need the element of surprise to creep up and catch their prey, maybe we could interrupt that process by tricking them into thinking they've been seen by their prey and so abandon the hunt.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how does a big cat know it's been spotted? Maybe if it sees a big eye looking back at it. So the team got to work painting eyes on the backsides of cows. Here's Cameron Radford.

RADFORD: So we tested this by painting one-third of a cattle herd with artificial eye spots, one-third with cross marks as a procedural control and one-third we left unmarked. And we found that over the four years, none of the cows that we painted with artificial eye spots were killed by ambush predators, which was quite amazing. They thought it was a bit of a joke at first, I think, but once they saw the results, they were quite excited by it. And they look forward to us coming back and painting more eyes on bums.

JORDAN: No one really expected it to work, I would say, including ourselves. And we thought that we had nothing to lose. We'll give it a go, and we'll sort of do this while we try and think of something else to do as well. But then we started getting results that were really, really promising.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Six hundred and eighty-three cows with eyes painted across their rumps roamed the delta for four years, and none of them was killed, unlike their unmarked or cross-marked cousins. Researchers Jordan and Radford say they worked very closely with village chiefs and native farmers to build enough trust to allow them to decorate cow butts with eye spots.

JORDAN: This is a very, very low-cost technique. We did the study on an absolute shoestring. So basically, you can do it with just a paintbrush and a pot of paint.

RADFORD: It's actually taking off in India, in Brazil, other parts of the world as well. And they're using various techniques - the paintbrush method, which is just the farmers painting eyes they want on the cows.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But it's not a fail-safe cattle protection method, says Cameron Radford and Neil Jordan. The eyes were painted to be seen during the day. The team and the farmers have yet to test it out on any body art that can be seen at night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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