student who is not afraid to pull punches and confront issues of concern. I admire her commitment, passion and honesty. Thanks, Niki!!
- Can you tell us a little about your background and education?
I started off with a degree in Zoology and had no idea about what I wanted to do with my life other than the vague plan of working with animals! After a rather convoluted route (involving doing all manner of jobs from working in debt collection to bird conservation) I decided that my true calling in life was trying to conserve endangered species. It was then that I undertook a Masters to further my studies in that area. After that, I worked in Africa at various carnivore conservation organisations and am now back in academia studying for a PhD that is looking into mitigating human-carnivore conflict between large predators and livestock farmers.
- How did you become interested in predators?
I can’t think of a time when I wasn’t interested in predators, to be honest! I’ve grown up with a mother who is deeply involved in a (domestic) cat charity, so I guess I started on the cute and fluffy predators before becoming drawn into the larger and wilder ones! The big cats especially have been a fascination of mine for as long as I can remember: their strength, agility, and majestic beauty are all features that one cannot help but admire.
- I’m sure you get this all the time, but what’s it like studying predators as a vegan?
It’s actually not bad! I have seen lions take down zebras right in front of me, where they would then spend 30 minutes killing the poor animal whilst it was being eaten alive by a pride of 8 individuals. This was obviously a very gruesome experience, but at the same time completely enthralling. When working with captive animals, it can be hard to get over the “yuck” factor when handling raw meat, especially as I’ve never cooked meat in my life. I get over my aversion by wearing gloves all the time whenever I have to come into contact with meat, just so there is a barrier between my hands and the carcass – as thin as it is!
- For people who haven’t read your wildly entertaining blog (spider bites, rabid antelopes, etc.), can you describe your experiences in Africa?
When in Africa, there is never a dull moment! And whenever you *think* not much is going on, trouble is surely around the corner! What I’ve learnt from my experiences there is that nothing ever goes according to plan, but that sometimes that’s OK because the unexpected can be just as good – or better – than what you’d originally intended to do! Life has a habit of being slower paced out there with short bursts of chaos, but there is true magic in the stars at night and the sunsets are more magnificent than any painting, which makes up for the madness. Being a nature lover, of course the wildlife out there is great too – you can’t beat going to bed at night hearing jackals calling and then waking up to the sound of bee-eaters and guinea fowl. One word of advice though: stay well clear of any violin/brown recluse spiders! Check your bedding at night and if you find a very painful mosquito bite that hurts far more than usual, it might be a spider bite!
- Your research has focused on using livestock guarding dogs (LGDs) in South Africa. Can you give us a quick synopsis of what you found?
These dogs are truly amazing – they have been bred through thousands of years to bond with livestock and protect them from predators. They are used in South Africa to guard cattle, sheep and goats from carnivores as large as spotted hyenas. Through my research I found that the dogs reduce attacks on livestock by 97%! This means that the farmer is financially far better off and also doesn’t have to go through the emotional stress of finding dead livestock. It also then means that they have less need to kill predators as they are not a threat to livestock any more.
- A fair number of the dogs in your study died due to snakebite and you suggest snake aversion training as part of the pre-conditioning that dogs receive. Do you know the species of snakes that caused the deaths?
Yes, sadly this is a common problem with all livestock guarding dogs because it is their duty to scope out any potential danger. Unfortunately you don’t get a chance to learn that snakes are dangerous because, once they bite, the dog rarely survives. The most common snakes to kill dogs are puff adders because, unlike most other snakes, they will not move away when a dog comes to investigate.
- The dogs you used were Anatolian shepherds and they are pretty rugged hounds to deal with leopards and hyenas. Can you describe what they are like?
They are huge beasts of dogs – their heads tend to be taller than my hips – with sandy fur and a black muzzle. Because they were bred in Turkey (as the name suggests) they usually have shorter hair to deal with the warmer climate, which makes them perfect breeds to use in the heat of southern Africa. In Turkey, they were bred to protect livestock from wolves and bears, so as you can imagine, they are pretty sturdy animals!
- Did most of the livestock producers in your study accept predators as long as they didn’t cause any losses or was their hatred ingrained and unwavering regardless of the situation?
The majority of farmers were far more tolerant of predators once they started using the dogs because they could see just how effective the dogs were at reducing predation. Most farmers dislike carnivores only because they cause damage to their stock, so once this problem is taken away, their attitude towards predators becomes far more positive. There are of course some bad apples out there, who have been raised to fear or hate any animal with canines and claws, but these type of people are fortunately rare.
- On your blog you have pretty sharp words for conservationists who “talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.” Can you tell us about your thoughts about this?
I feel that conservationists tend to get interested in this line of work because of a passion for nature. As such, I believe that it is our moral duty to do all we can to ensure the future survival of biodiversity on this planet. It amazes me that some conservationists do not think twice about the amount of meat they eat (which could well have been raised on farms that kill predators), the number of international flights they take, or their behavior in general and how this can affect conservation. If we are writing journal articles and creating policies that aims to improve the behavior of others, why not do these things ourselves?
10. Another topic you tackle head-on is population control. What are your thoughts on that?
To me, the main drivers of biodiversity loss are overconsumption and overpopulations. Yes, alien invasive species are a problem, but where do these species come from? Humans, who travel all over the world taking these species with them. The more travel and the more humans, the more chance these invasive species will be transmitted. Yes, habitat loss is a problem, but why is this happening? Because we are cutting down forests and converting savannahs to crops and pastures for our ever-expanding diets and ever-increasing numbers. Yes, pollution causes huge problems in the ecosystem, but what causes pollution? The processing of resources for our consumption – the more people and the more they consume, the more pollution there will be. Yes, climate change threatens the vast majority of species on this planet (humans included) but what causes this? Our never-ending greed for oil, partly due to our appetite for resources but also because there are more and more of us on this planet.
It saddens me that many conservationists do not speak up about the population problem. I wonder whether this may be because they are worried about overstepping a taboo or are concerned about how it will affect donor funding. However, I feel that our numbers have such a huge impact on wildlife that we cannot stand back and keep our mouths shut any more – we must stand up and start talking about this problem. I’m not advocating for drastic action, but I do think that the Center for Biological Diversity has a great idea in promoting Endangered Species Condoms!
11. What is next for you? What would you like to study and learn about?
Once I’ve got this PhD out of the way with I am hoping to continue working in carnivore conservation, particularly on the topic of human-wildlife conflict. The more I learn about this subject, the more it interests me, and the more I feel that we are only just beginning to appreciate the true depth of the problem – particularly from political and psychological angles. I’ve become a true social science convert through doing this research, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up spending the vast majority of my time chatting with local people about their predator problems, rather than going out into the field and spotting carnivores! That’s fine by me though – as long as I know I’m doing my bit to help conserve these magnificent beasts, I don’t need to see them every day!
12. For the average reader of this blog, what’s your advice as far as what they can do to support predators?
I would honestly say that the best thing you can do is to find out where you get your meat from. And I’m not just saying that as a vegan! The biggest threat to carnivores globally is the meat industry – not just with ranchers killing them, but also taking predator’s land and natural prey away from them as farmers convert wild rangelands and rainforests for pastures. Do you know how many predators went into making that burger? Do you care how many old-wood trees were cut down to make way for the livestock farm that produces your steak? These are questions I think every person who is passionate about carnivores should be asking themselves. We vote with our wallets, so if we as consumers demand that all meat must be predator-friendly, then this could be a game changer when it comes to conserving predators globally.
13. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
The one thing I would like to point out is my concern for the growing number of people who are using captive carnivores as forms of social capital by taking “selfies” with these animals and posting them on social media. There are a number of good sanctuaries out there that do truly help wild carnivores with the donations from the public, but there are also lots out there who are using this demand from the public purely as a money-making venture. It may be a lovely experience to hold a baby tiger in your arms and have a photograph taken with it, but surely it would be far lovelier to see tigers in the wild?