The Artistic Illusion Protecting Cattle in Botswana From Lion Attacks

Normally having eyes glued to your ass would be a workplace no-no, but this new technique is a real life-saver down at the farm (All images courtesy of UNSW Sydney; photo by Ben Yexley)

There are many tricks and tips for surviving wild animal encounters. We all know we should move sideways around bearsstand as tall as possible for mountain lionspunch sharks in the face, and never under any circumstances allow raccoons to access nuclear codes. But now, farmers in Botswana have developed a new technique to protect their cattle from lion attacks: art appreciation. According to an article by UNSW, painting eyes on the backsides of cows can reduce attacks by predators (which include leopards, spotted hyaenas, cheetahs, and African wild dogs, in addition to lions).

A joint study from UNSW Sydney, Taronga Conservation Society Australia, and Botswana Predator Conservation suggests this optical illusion as a kinder approach than killing the lions that threaten herds. It is also a more ecologically gentle alternative to fencing that disrupts the flow of indigenous wildlife by trying to separate livestock from predators.

“A cow without eyes is blind,” goes an old Batswana saying that I’ve just now made up. “But a cow without eyes on her ass is lunch!” (Photo by Bobby-Jo Photography)

Dubbed the “Eye-Cow Project,” the technique exploits lions’ instinctive tendency to want to get the drop on their prey unawares.

“Lions are ambush predators that rely on stalking, and therefore the element of surprise, so being seen by their prey can lead to them abandoning the hunt,” said Dr. Neil Jordan, joint UNSW Science and Taronga Western Plains Zoo researcher, in a press release on the project.

“We tested whether we could hack into this response to reduce livestock losses, potentially protecting lions and livelihoods at the same time.”

The guide recommends that before you apply eyes to the hindquarters of a cow, you should buy it some hay. (Photo by Bobby-Jo Photography)

This simple intervention was tested with farmers in the Okavango delta region by painting one-third of cattle in each of 14 herds that had suffered lion attacks. They were decorated with an artificial eyespot design on the rump, one-third with simple cross-marks, leaving the rest of the herd unmarked. During the four-year study, no painted “eye-cows” were killed by ambush predators, while 15 unpainted and four cross-painted cattle were killed.

The “Eye-Cow” starter kit — FINALLY I found something to get Banksy for Christmas!! (Photo by Bobby-Jo Photography)

While you cannot dispute these numbers, I suspect the motivation on the part of these noble predators is one of art appreciation, rather than fear of being watched.

“As you can see, they have painted some of the cows,” said one lion, reached for comment while lying under a tree. “Everyone knows you don’t touch paintings.”

“Seriously, what are we, animals?” added a leopard lounging in a nearby tree.