Lonely Planet Writer

Could painting eyes on cows' bottoms scare off lions in rural Botswana?

It sounds like a wacky idea, but a trial is currently underway in rural Botswana to examine whether painting eyes on cows’ bottoms could really scare off predatory lions. Herders in the southern African country are losing livestock to lions at a worrying rate and taking measures that include killing the lions in retaliation, so this “i-cow” experiment is being conducted to see if it helps the problem.

The "i-cow" project examines whether lions are deterred by eyes painted on cows' bottoms. Image: Carnivore Coexistence
The “i-cow” project examines whether lions are deterred by eyes painted on cows’ bottoms. Image: Carnivore Coexistence

The project is being led by conservationist and lecturer Neil Jordan and his team at the University of New South Wales in Australia. The idea came about when he was working with the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, and noticed, during a field trip, that a lion abandoned an impala he had been stalking when it turned and looked at him. Reasoning that the predator had been deterred by the eye contact, he wondered if eyes painted on the rump of a cow would achieve a similar result in areas where lions were coming into contact with livestock?

The "i-cow" project examines whether lions are deterred by eyes painted on cows' bottoms. Image: Carnivore Coexistence
The “i-cow” project examines whether lions are deterred by eyes painted on cows’ bottoms. Image: Carnivore Coexistence

After a short i-cow trial on a herd of 62 cows in northern Botswana’s Shukamukwa yielded promising results, Neil expanded the study to two other nearby cattle farms to test it further, as he doesn’t want to give false hope to already-struggling farmers. He also raised funds to use radio collars and GPS logging to provide more accurate results. The painted “eyes” were made by making a home-made stamp from foam, gluing it to a wooden board, dipping it in paint and stamping a pair of “eyes” on either side of the cow’s tail.

The "i-cow" project examines whether lions are deterred by eyes painted on cows' bottoms. Image: Carnivore Coexistence
The “i-cow” project examines whether lions are deterred by eyes painted on cows’ bottoms. Image: Carnivore Coexistence

Apart from the loss of livestock to the farmers, some had resorted to shooting the lions or putting out poison for them although hunting is illegal in Botswana. It is estimated that the lion population has declined by more than 40% over the last two decades in the country, so finding a solution to this problem is vital. If the project proves successful, an added bonus is that the cost to farmers is minimal, representing one-fifth of what it would cost to lose a single cow over a period of 12 months.