lion pride sitting in grass


Cattle/Carnivore Coexistence Project


The Productive Landscapes Group at emLab is partnering with National Geographic to ensure the survival of big cats—cheetahs, lions, and leopards—in Sub-Saharan Africa. These animals are some of the world’s most iconic and charismatic species, but also some of the most threatened and vulnerable. In the last few decades, the growing global demand for animal protein has effectively reduced the historic range and population size of big cats. As more and more of these species’ natural habitats is converted for ranching, incidents of livestock-cat conflicts are becoming increasingly common. Ranchers, whose livelihoods depend on the health and safety of their cattle, often respond to these conflicts with retaliatory killings, and these killings have affected both the size and stability of big cat populations in the region. emLab is currently evaluating approaches to address this challenge. 


Given the current decline in big cat populations, the economic, social, and ecological benefits that these animals produce are at risk of being diminished, or disappearing entirely. Big cats are at the heart of a booming tourism industry that generates important economic value for local communities. But of perhaps even greater value is what economists refer to as these animals’ existence value—the benefit that the global community derives from simply knowing that these iconic animals exist. The ecological value of big cats is also significant. They make a critical contribution to local ecosystems by providing herbivore control, thereby enhancing native plant and animal biodiversity, helping to prevent forest stand degradation and stream bank erosion, and improving water quality and flood control.

Though the benefits of maintaining healthy cat populations are numerous, these animals can impose high costs on local communities when they prey on livestock. These costs are widespread—affected communities lose not only a potential food source, but also a share of their income, and an insurance policy against drought or famine. Given that the human population and demand for livestock products are both on the rise in Sub-Saharan Africa, there is an urgent need for effective strategies to manage livestock-big cat conflicts. 


The Productive Landscapes Group at emLab is working with National Geographic to research the most effective mechanisms for mitigating livestock-big cat conflicts. We are reviewing literature and examining case studies from regions where these strategies have previously been employed to better understand the limitations and challenges associated with each. Furthermore, we are characterizing different production systems and the geographic distribution of Sub-Saharan Africa’s livestock industry to develop new performance measures and better align the incentives for livestock production and big cat conservation. 

We’ve begun by reviewing community-based conservation programs, evaluating their relative advantages and limitations. One class of programs is tourism-based, in which communities are given a portion of local tourism revenues as a means to encourage big cat protection. Although this kind of program has potential to drive more conservation-minded practices from ranchers, the relationship between the size of big cat populations and tourism revenue is unclear.  This may undermine the economic case for using such a program to motivate conservation in the first place. Given that such programs are commonly weakened by political interference and that tourism revenue represents only a small fraction of available funding sources for big cat conservation, it is critical that we explore other avenues for financing this important work.

As an alternative, The Productive Landscapes Group is investigating incentive-compatible programs. Unlike the traditional tourism-based model, these programs provide payments to communities that successfully deliver improved conservation outcomes for big cats. The advantage of these programs is that payments are not contingent on an increase in tourism revenue. The challenge with this class of programs is that it can be difficult to determine whether changes in cat populations are a direct result of anthropogenic actions or instead of natural forces.

The sustained success of incentive-compatible conservation programs is highly dependent on the way in which payments are distributed to the local community. The Productive Landscapes Group is developing a two-part payment system that provides community members with both income-based payments and mitigation supplies, such as fences and security animals. In a system like this, the size of the income-based payment would increase as conservation outcomes improve, effectively incentivizing ranchers to adopt practices that mitigate cattle-cat conflicts. The provision of supplies would also help ensure that ranchers have the tools they need to reduce conflicts between their animals and wildlife.
There is still much to learn about how incentive-based schemes influence human behavior in practice. We therefore intend to conduct randomized trials in the field to test different programs and determine whether there is a causal effect of an intervention on conservation outcomes. The Productive Landscapes Group is confident that pairing successful interventions with incentive payments will help ensure the long-term health and stability of wild cat populations in Sub-Saharan Africa.  


The Cattle/Carnivore Coexistence Project is a collaborative effort between The Productive Landscapes Group at emLab and National Geographic.