/ 24 July 2021

Predators: Beauties or beasts?

Caracal (caracal Caracal) Resting, Harnas Wildlife Foundation, Namibia, South Africa
Hunters and hunted: Caracal prey on rodents, hares and antelope. However, they are hunted by farmers during the lambing season. (Thomas Dressler)

One morning 16 years ago, Marine Drouilly woke up to find a row of dead black-backed jackals and caracals lying on the grass outside the small farmhouse where she lived. Their stomachs had been cut open to try to prove that they had killed sheep. 

Drouilly, a French conservation scientist, had been hired as a field technician to ring birds in the Northern Cape and had dreamed of seeing a caracal in the wild since she was a child. 

“They were the first caracals I saw,” she remembers. “I asked the farmer what it was all about. He told me that in South Africa, small-livestock farmers and these two mesopredators [mid-sized carnivores] were at war because of the carnivores’ predation on sheep. He told me that no one was interested in their problems and that they had to conduct their own research. That’s why they were opening the animals’ stomachs.”

Intrigued, Drouilly started searching online for related studies or research and soon found that the farmer was right: “There was nothing published. But I did find that thousands of jackals and caracals were killed every year to try and prevent them from depredating small livestock and springboks in South Africa.”

These predators have been perceived as a threat to the financial sustainability of the small-livestock industry, says Drouilly, who is now the regional carnivore monitoring coordinator for West and Central Africa for Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organisation.

In 2012, she began her own research in central Karoo, the small livestock stronghold of South Africa. For predators in this region, there’s a plentiful supply of unguarded, easy-to-catch sheep, as well as permanent water sources. This leads to the retaliatory killing of predators using guns, traps and poison.

Drouilly started working towards a PhD at the Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa at the University of Cape Town, under the supervision of behavioural ecologist Justin O’Riain and socioeconomist Nicoli Nattrass. She lived in the area for four years.

“My role was to participate intensively and empathetically in the life and duties of the farming community to better understand their relationships with wildlife and predators, in particular,” she said, adding that it was not easy at first because of differences with the farmers.

“For example, I was a vegetarian while most of the Karoo farmers consider chicken to be a vegetable.” 

Drouilly had previously been employed by a local leopard conservation NGO. 

“Some farmers were suspicious of my presence in their community and were calling me the ‘greenie’, but it was never mean,” she said.

“Despite our differences, we always respected each other. It was very hard for me to see jackals and caracals being killed constantly, but it was heartbreaking to see a struggling farmer in tears because he had lost several lambs in one night due to predation.” 

The study that she led, now published in the journal PLOS One, found that the survival of wild predators could depend on whether livestock farmers find these species beautiful and charismatic.

Farmers who had the greatest aesthetic appreciation for the animals were the most likely to tolerate their presence, even in cases of predation. As a consequence, Drouilly said, focusing solely on actions to reduce livestock losses on farmland is unlikely to promote tolerance for mesopredators and co-existence with farming activities.

The researchers interviewed 77 sheep farmers who ranked jackal as the predator responsible for the most livestock losses in the preceding year, followed by caracal.

“Throughout the time we spent with the farming community, we noted words and expressions coming from the lexical fields of anger, desperation and frustration, especially when the respondents talked about jackals,” the researchers said.

Jackal hunt insects, lizards and rodents.

Amid the negative terms, however, the word “beautiful” emerged several times, notably for caracal: “Many farmers perceive caracals as ‘fascinating’ and ‘beautiful’ animals, while jackals were admired for their intelligence and adaptability.”

This was despite costs inflicted by these species. “A complex relationship that has also been observed between Maasai people and lions [in Kenya] and in the suburbs of Cape Town where the residents of an eco-estate became highly conflicted about the arrival of a wild caracal in the area that was eating their domestic cats.”

When farmers believe that jackals are “thieves” and caracal are “insentient machines”, they are less inclined to tolerate them on their farms.

“This distorted image of the predator, propagated through time in the various cultures, could have negative conservation and ethical consequences,” Drouilly said.

It is much harder to point the finger at a specific culprit when problems are created by climate change and drought. 

There is no easy fix, said Drouilly: “Black-backed jackals and caracals are not endangered or at risk of extinction in southern Africa. However, they are being killed on farmland, sometimes with illegal methods that are not selective. Blanket killing is also not ethically acceptable or accepted by the general public anymore. Our research showed how important it is to consider the complex perceptions and feelings of farmers towards predators. Focusing on the positive dimensions of human-wildlife relationships may facilitate local authorities’ and NGOs’ investment in outreach initiatives to build behavioural change strategies targeted at the farmers.” 

Drouilly wants to test whether these results apply to larger cats, including the leopard, the most persecuted large cat in the world. People could play a crucial role in conservation.

“They are the ones living in those shared landscapes with wildlife or in settlements surrounding protected areas. Ultimately, they will determine whether wildlife can persist in those landscapes or not,” she said.

“Large carnivores such as leopards trigger intense emotions and are culturally important in many societies. If we could better understand the perceptions local communities have of those species, and what factors affect tolerance towards them, we could better target our conservation campaigns and make sure they are culturally relevant and accepted.”