Lion attacks on livestock can end badly for all parties involved. If a farmer spots a predator in the act, one of the only ways to stop it is with a gun. Some experts believe that such cases of retaliatory killing pose a greater threat to lions than poaching. Researchers at the University of New South Wales are now hoping to dissuade lions from going in for the kill by painting pairs of fake eyes onto the butts of cows.

Neil Jordan, a conservation biologist at UNSW’s Center for Ecosystem Science, got the idea for his experiment after witnessing a lion on the hunt in Botswana. It was stalking an impala when the prey perked its head up. The lion then realized it had been noticed and retreated. This got Jordan wondering if there was way to hijack this phenomenon to trick lions into thinking they had been spotted even when they hadn’t.

He joined forces with the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust (BPCT) and a local farmer last year to put his theory to the test. After painting eyes onto the rear ends of one-third of a herd of 62 cattle (a method Jordan dubbed “iCow”), they let the cows behave as usual then counted them at the end of each day to see which group had a higher survival rate. Three cows were killed over the course of 10 weeks, none of which belonged to the painted rump bunch.

The sample size was too small to say whether the second pair of eyes is what protected the cows or if they just survived by chance. Jordan is returning to Botswana in mid-July to test the tool further over three months, this time using GPS devices to monitor cow-lion interactions. Even if he does see similar results, that won’t necessarily mean that the painted-on eyes are a fool-proof method for keeping away predators; lions have other ways of knowing when it’s time to pounce. But in a region where lion attacks on cattle are disastrous for both farmers and lion populations, painting a few cow butts certainly doesn’t hurt.

[h/t UNSW]

All images courtesy of Ben Yexly/UNSW

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