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africa: conservation

gyork@globeandmail.com

In a vast wilderness of thorn trees and grasslands on the edge of the Kalahari desert, Peter Knipe farms a menagerie of thousands of animals, from goats and cattle to impalas and giraffes. His most exotic import, however, is a friendly looking dog named Neeake.

Raised with a herd of goats since he was a puppy, Neeake has bonded with the goats so loyally that he guards them with his life. He scans the horizon constantly, searching for predators, keeping the cheetahs and leopards at bay.

Neeake, a Turkish breed known as an Anatolian shepherd, is the latest experiment by Africa's conservationists as they search for new ways to halt the dramatic decline of African wildlife. Because of Neeake, and other dogs like him, the farmers of Molopo River don't need to shoot or trap the cheetahs. The dogs protect the livestock, and the cheetahs survive.

"We've had zero losses where we use the dogs," Mr. Knipe says. "They're great protectors. Since we've gotten the dogs, everyone here has become cheetah-friendly."

Lions and cheetahs, two of the iconic creatures of Africa, are in serious decline across the continent. Cheetahs, the world's fastest mammal, numbered about 100,000 worldwide a century ago, yet only about 7,500 survive today. Lions, the king of beasts, have fallen from 200,000 in the 1970s to fewer than 40,000 today. Both are classified as "vulnerable" on the global list of endangered species.

Other species, such as elephants, have recovered their numbers in most regions of Africa, but remain under threat from poachers. And then there are lesser-known animals such as the African wild dog, which has declined from 500,000 to less than 6,000 today.

To preserve them from the ravages of human encroachment, experts are turning to a wide range of innovative ideas.









Elephants, for example, are getting help from the Elephant Pepper Development Trust, based in Zambia. The trust helps farmers to grow hot-chili peppers around their crops, discouraging elephants from trampling on the crops, since elephants - oddly enough - hate the smell of chili. This reduces the conflicts between humans and elephants, giving the animals a better chance of survival.

Lions, meanwhile, are being reintroduced into the African wilderness in an ambitious multi-generational program by the African Lion and Environmental Research Trust. Captive lions are bred in large fenced areas in Zimbabwe and Zambia, where their offspring become habituated to humans. Tourists generate money for the breeding project in a "walk with the lions" program. When the cubs mature and learn to hunt, they are released into larger areas and shielded from human contact. Their cubs, in turn, are released into the wild.

African wild dogs, perhaps the most endangered of all, are bred and studied at the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre in South Africa. When tourists visit, the guides urge them to ask for wild dogs at any game parks they visit. Since wild dogs need vast hunting territories, their best chance of survival is in wildlife parks, but the owners need to be persuaded that there is a demand for wild dogs - so tourists are enlisted in the campaign.

Cheetahs, once a favourite hunting companion of Egyptian pharaohs and Chinese emperors, are today a familiar sight in game parks from Namibia to Kenya. But they, too, are in trouble. They have weak immune systems, a low fertility rate and are prone to birth defects. Because they hunt in the daytime, their hunting is often disrupted by safari jeeps and gawking tourists. And because they are winded after their legendarily swift hunting pursuits, they can be chased off their prey by tougher predators such as lions and hyenas. So they often migrate to farmland, where they come into conflict with gun-toting farmers. Conservationists first tried to help the cheetahs by advising farmers to guard their livestock with donkeys, which can aggressively attack predators. But by the mid-1990s, they discovered a better option: the Anatolian shepherd. Courageous and formidable, these dogs have a history of 6,000 years in the Anatolian plateau of Turkey, where they were bred to protect livestock from bears and wolves.

The Anatolian shepherds weigh up to 70 kilograms, with a powerful neck and shoulders, and can run at 75 kilometres an hour. They have sharp eyesight and hearing, an excellent sense of smell, a calm disposition, and an instinct to investigate and confront any threat to their herd.

Introduced by conservation groups in Namibia in the 1990s, the dogs proved successful in scaring away cheetahs without killing them. Now they are distributed free of charge to farmers in South Africa by charities such as Cheetah Outreach. They reduce livestock losses by 95 to 100 per cent, according to Cheetah Outreach.

The group tells the story of Crikey, an Anatolian shepherd that was attacked by a leopard at the age of seven months. He suffered serious wounds, but none of his herd was lost. He was taken into the farm house to recover, but escaped on the first night to walk 14 kilometres back to his herd.

Mr. Knipe, whose 7,500-hectare farm is on a remote stretch of the border between South Africa and Botswana, says his Anatolian shepherd was so effective that he quickly asked for a second one. Before the arrival of Neeake, he was losing 50 to 70 goats to predators every season. Now he moves Neeake from herd to herd, depending on where cheetahs are detected, and never suffers any losses in herds that the dog accompanies.

"He can see things that we can't even see - even a snake," Mr. Knipe says. "He's very loyal and protective."