Conservation Dogs

When it comes to protecting the world’s remaining large carnivores, the challenges are endless. As the human population grows, our need for food and safety grows too, leaving little room for predators. With their space decreasing, their prey depleted and the pressures from hunting increasing, human-wildlife conflict is unavoidable, and it seems impossible for humans and large predators to coexist in the modern world.

Human-wildlife conflict is a lose-lose situation. Lost livestock means a threatened livelihood for farmers and ranchers, and thousands of predators are killed each year due to the real or perceived threat that they pose to livestock safety. The reason that animals depredate livestock is often because of depletion of their usual prey, which is caused by hunting or habitat loss. Without the large herbivores they used to depend on for survival, they become desperate, and turn to cattle and sheep instead.

Historically, humans used dogs to protect livestock and human settlements from large predators. They selected for large, aggressive dogs that bonded well with the flocks and herds, and worked independently of human influence. Today, their size and temperament make them unsuitable as pets in our modern world, unable to adapt to indoor lifestyles with minimal work and exercise. However, our conflict with wildlife remains as common and destructive as ever, and our need for non-lethal methods in controlling these situations calls for the dogs our ancestors created and valued. Many farmers claim they are still the most effective tools for preventing livestock depredation.

More and more, dogs are being used to protect valuable livestock against predation, thus mitigating the aggressive response that humans often have when they perceive a threat to their livelihood. In Namibia, Anatolian shepherds are bred by the Cheetah Conservation Fund and given to local farmers, reducing their livestock losses and resulting in fewer incidents of retaliation killing by shooting, snaring or poisoning. In Africa and North America, livestock guarding dogs are now a common tool for farmers living in the territory of large predators. On the other side, in Australia, the native little penguins are protected from invasive foxes by Maremma sheepdogs.

Not only are dogs integral in protecting livestock from predators, but also in catching wildlife poachers and smugglers. In Ecuador, detection dogs search boats from the Galapagos for illegal shark fins, and in Kyrgyzstan, dogs have recently been employed to curb smuggling of snow leopard trophies. A single dog at South Korea’s Incheon Airport uncovered 80 stashes of illegal wildlife parts and live animals during his two-year career. In Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, tracking dogs have been so successful in catching poachers that elephant poaching in the area is down significantly, and the dogs have been put to work seeking out bushmeat hunters.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. As our society moves forward in an increasingly modern world, we have some of the same fundamental problems. Despite all our technological advances, the best tool we have for protecting ourselves and our livestock from wild animals is guardian dogs. As it turns out, it is also the best tool, as it also protects the wildlife from us.

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Stephanie Higgins

Stephanie Higgins

I am a professional ecologist, and hold degrees in both photography and zoology. I grew up in Canada, and have worked on research projects in Madagascar, South Africa and Scotland. I have worked in zoos as well and for consultancies, as well as on conservation projects.
Stephanie Higgins

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