Painting eyes on the backside of cattle deters lion attacks

About 6 years ago I wrote about the Bangladeshi and Indian people working in the sprawling 10,000 square kilometre Delta of mangrove swamps called the Sundarbans and how they protected themselves from tiger attacks by wearing masks. The masks are placed on the back of their heads not the front. The intention is to prevent tigers from attacking from behind as they usually do. It is known that Bengal tigers are reluctant to attack a person from the front (see picture at base of page). If they see the eyes of a prey animal looking at them they are less likely to attack because they’ve been spotted.

Bum stare: protecting cattle from lion attack in Botswana and elsewhere in Africa
Bum stare: protecting cattle from lion attack in Botswana and elsewhere in Africa. Photo: Ben Yexley

This concept can be seen in a new development in Africa with the intention of preventing retaliation killings of lions after they have preyed upon and killed farmers’ livestock. Research carried out in the Okavango Delta, Botswana has confirmed that painting eyes on the backsides of cattle deters attacks by lions and other predators. Surprisingly for me, a cross on a cow’s flank also helps to deter an attack but is less effective.

The study took place over a four-year period. Scientists from Australia and the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust painted the eyes as described. The cattle graze on the UNESCO world Heritage site. The predators in that area are lions, leopards, spotted hyenas, cheetahs and African wild dogs.

The theory is that predators stalk prey and they need to be undetected to get as close as possible before their final rush. Although this doesn’t apply to wild dogs in my view because they tend to wear down prey through sheer stamina and kill in teams.

The eyes trick a lion into believing that they are being watched by their prey animal which deters them. They abandon the hunt. The participants were 14 herds of cattle which had suffered from lion attacks in the past. One third of each herd was painted with an ice spot on the rump. A further third were painted with a cross and the rest were left unmarked.

All of the cows painted with an eye were unharmed by lions. Those painted with the cross were attacked and killed on 4 occasions. Unpainted cattle were attacked 15 times.

The defence is also seen in nature. Eye patterns are common in some animal groups such as butterflies, molluscs, birds and fishes. Mammals do not have eye patterns as a defensive system.

There are limitations despite the trial’s success. The predators will become used to the eyes and learn that they are not to be feared. Also, the study may be slightly flawed in that the lions were able to attack some cattle because they did not have the patterns. Perhaps this blunted their desire to attack other cows even those with the eye pattern defence.

The whole process is about lion conservation which is desperately needed. Retaliation lion killings are a major cause of their declining numbers but we have to understand that the conflict between human and lion arises because humans are on lion territory.

Protecting workers form tiger attacks in the Sundarbans
Protecting workers form tiger attacks in the Sundarbans
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Post Category: Cats