People and Caracals in Namibia: Interview with Dr. Aletris Neils of Conservation CATalyst

Dr. Aletris Neils of Conservation CATalyst holding a caracal. Image © Conservation CATalyst, used with permission.

A little while ago, I had the distinct privilege of being able to sit down with Dr. Aletris Neils. Dr. Neils is the Executive Director of Conservation CATalyst, the big cat conservation group behind the groundbreaking video of El Jefe that became a media sensation in February, 2016. They were also featured in an article about American jaguars that appeared in the October, 2016 edition of The Smithsonian.

In addition to their borderlands jaguar project, Conservation CATalyst also conducts conservation outreach and research on caracals (Caracal caracal) in Namibia. During our interview, I asked Dr. Neils a series of questions about her work with caracals. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation.*

First of all, what is your background?

A photo of Dr. Neils working in Southern Africa. Image © Conservation CATalyst, used with permission.

I am a carnivore conservation biologist, and I specifically focus on conflicts involving carnivores and livestock. I grew up on a ranch in Arizona, where we used to have problems with predators (mostly feral dogs). I guess this is how I became interested in human-carnivore conflicts, although for some reason I was drawn to cats.

I initially started working as a tracker. I was invited to volunteer with the Northern Jaguar Preserve, where I primarily helped to collect hair that could be used for DNA analyses. I was eventually invited to Namibia to work with the Cheetah Conservation Fund in a similar capacity.

In 2002, a farmer (ranchers are called “farmers” in Namibia) trapped a caracal. I played the lead role in the cat’s rehabilitation, and was the person who released it. I was mesmerized by that caracal, and I wanted to learn more about them. I found that little is known about caracals, and that they are highly persecuted throughout their range – especially in Southern Africa.

What are caracals?

Caracals are medium-sized cats that inhabit parts of Turkey, India, the Middle East, and much of Africa. Caracals are designated as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List, although they are Endangered or Critically Endangered in many of the northern portions of their range. Caracals have the best chance of long-term persistence in Southern Africa, which is where I work.

Caracals are an old species: millions of years old. Their claim to fame is their leaping ability. From a seated position, caracals can jump over a basketball hoop.

There is a long history of people keeping caracals as pets, which makes the lack of information about them even more perplexing. There are no good population estimates for caracals. We first need to learn more about caracal ecology, and then we need to better understand how people perceive them. We can then combine this knowledge to design mitigation strategies that actually work.

A map depicting the known range of caracals. Caracal Distribution – 2 by Arab League. Public Domain.

Do mitigation strategies usually not work?

Few conservationists truly understand livestock producers. They sometimes treat farmers as if they are the enemy. Conservation organizations tend to have a few favorite interventions that they push on farmers, even if those interventions do not fit local conditions. When farmers choose not to accept their recommendations, conservationists sometimes talk down to them. This can create situations where farmers who previously had few problems with the target species (e.g. caracals), will then kill more of them – seemingly out of spite.

Growing up on a ranch has helped me to understand farmers better. I actually live with farmers when I am in the field, which also helps. I am not a fan of band-aid solutions; we need to better understand people and their situations.

Could you say more about caracal persecution in Southern Africa?

Most caracals do not take livestock, but those that do kill livestock repeatedly. It might help to selectively remove these ‘problem’ animals, but killing large numbers of caracals is counterproductive. High turnover rates can create an abundance of younger, more conflict-prone animals.

Killing too many mature caracals in one area can actually create more problems. The same is true for pumas. Image © Conservation CATalyst, used with permission.

Addressing caracal persecution needs to happen on a case-by-case basis. Conservationists need patience, as time is the most critical factor. It has taken me years to earn farmers’ trust and understand their perspectives, but sometimes that is what it takes.

It is also important to note that livestock producers are in a precarious position. Factors like weather can seriously affect farmers’ livelihoods, and land reform is a looming threat – as in Zimbabwe. Of all the problems farmers face, predators are often the only ones they can control.

Local participation is crucial when addressing carnivore persecution. I have never had to capture any of the caracals I have collared. When farmers trap caracals now, they let me know. If I can put a GPS collar on a trapped cat, usually farmers will let it go.

The reason farmers often spare collared caracals is that I can track them. When the data from a caracal’s collar indicates it is on a kill, I go to check it with the farmer whose land it is on. This is a nervous event, because there is a chance that the prey animal is a sheep. But it can also be an impactful strategy, as farmers learn to take pride in ‘their’ caracals.

Caracals are being heavily persecuted, yet they are listed as Least Concern. How does that work?

More research needs to be done to more fully understand the caracals’ situation. Image © Conservation CATalyst, used with permission.

Technically caracals are designated as Data Deficient Least Concern, but this should not stop them from getting funding. I understand why more money goes towards more threatened species, but I believe in proactive conservation. Now is the time to act for caracals.

Some caracal populations in Southern Africa are in decline, but most have the capacity to bounce back – if we can reduce their persecution. That is why we need more stable funding for caracal conservation, and more holistic research.

However, there is still hope for caracals. I know farmers who have stopped killing caracals, and still more who only kill caracals when they attack livestock. This is an improvement, and our collaring program has been the catalyst.

Speaking of your collaring program, can readers pay to sponsor a collar?

Yes! All of the caracals I was tracking have been killed. Caracals have large home ranges, and they eventually wander onto land that is owned by a farmer whom I have not met. This puts the cats at risk, but it also gives me a chance to meet new farmers.

I am always looking for collar sponsors: this truly is the key to saving the lives of these cats.

I would like to sincerely thank Dr. Neils for agreeing to this interview. Please take a few minutes to visit Conservation CATalyst’s website.

*I have edited the original conversation to make it more concise and blog-friendly.

14 Thoughts

  1. This is very interesting, and, although the climate and continents are “worlds away”, relates to what I am currently studying. First, I’m surprised the caracal has such an extensive range; I have a very limited understanding of the Africas and the Middle East; I imagine much of its home range is quite developed…I suppose, then, it is quite an adaptable cat. I will admit I have rarely heard mention of the caracal.

    Interesting perspective on farmer and conservationist relationships. Any relationship that lacks mutual respect is counterintuitive. It is also of interest to me that farmers take better care of the collared cats.. I wonder if it is out of interest in the study, or for fear of being penalized.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Luna! Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      Many people have never heard of caracals before, which is why I chose to focus on them for this interview; I wanted to help shine a spotlight on one of the lesser-known and less popular species of cat. They do have a large range, and they are very adaptable. But their range isn’t as ‘even’ as the map I posted might lead you to believe. They will likely live at different population densities throughout that green space, and in some areas they’re much more threatened than they are in Southern Africa.

      I don’t know much about the wildlife of the Middle East either, which is a region I’d like to learn more about. In the US, we only ever talk about the negative social aspects of the Middle East; I’d like to learn more about the natural history of that region as well.

      From the conversations between Dr. Neils and I, I got the impression that farmers will take better care of collared cats because they trust Dr. Neils. They’re definitely not afraid of being penalized, because quite frankly they won’t be. The fact that Dr. Neils can literally track the caracals’ movements via the collars also helps, because it means she can alert them when the caracal is near their livestock. Lastly, I think that simple curiosity plays a role too. I suspect that the farmers want to know what the cats get up to as much as the scientists do.

      What are you currently studying? I apologize if you’ve already told me, but I can’t remember.

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      1. Yes, I imagine their distribution varies significantly throughout that map. It is nice to hear that somebody is working with both farmers and caracals in a way that is respectful to both. I recently had quite the disheartening conversation with somebody who lives in British Columbia’s ranch country. I happened to be walking home when a coyote was walking right in front of me. I mentioned this, and the response on the other end of the line was, “Ah yes. We use those for shooting practice,” to which I said was nothing to be proud of. The response to that was “farmers and ranchers need to protect their livestock,” to which I said that coyotes aren’t a threat to livestock. The response to that was “the dead animals attract bear which farmers shoot to protect their livestock,” to which I said is not even legal. The response to that was “well yes, but the conservation officers look the other way because they know that farmers need to protect their livestock.”

        Having such a conversation made me thoroughly upset, for a number of reasons. First, coyotes aren’t a threat to livestock populations, and while bear might be, it is the conservation officer’s duty to protect native wildlife and work on behalf of both parties. Of course, I am only hearing one side of this story. I can only hope that farmers and conservation officers can learn to see eye-to-eye in any relationship. As with most conflicts in this world, there is no simple solution.

        I’m currently enrolled in a Northern Conservation Science program, with the end goal being a degree in two + years. Learning lots everyday, and I’m glad for it!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh yes, the eternal dance between protecting threatened wildlife and trying to stay on the good side of the locals. Part of the point of earning farmers’ trust is so you can work with them to develop more realistic perceptions animals like coyotes (or caracals), and to work with them to reduce killings of wildlife. Helping farmers protect livestock is part of that equation, especially when livestock predation is particularly severe and/or when farmers are particularly poor. But just as coming in with a heavy hand and trying to force farmers to do what you want isn’t good, turning a blind eye to illegal killings of wildlife isn’t helpful either (except in extreme cases, perhaps). At least those are my two cents.

          You’re right though, there are very few simple solutions in conservation – especially predator conservation.

          What school do you go to, if you don’t mind me asking (you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to). I’ve decided that if I continue on to the PhD level, which I’ve instructed several people to hit me over the head with heavy objects if I do, then I’m going to at least look into going to school in Canada.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Thank you for this article, I’m sure I will be referring to it in school sometime over the next few years. I am at Yukon College-which is on it’s way to becoming a university- and enrolled in a northern science program that grants a degree through University of Alberta. So, I am a student of both institutions! It is a great program, though I think UBC in Vancouver is an excellent school for higher-level academics. And working towards a PhD is nothing to be ashamed of. Quite the long haul, I’m sure, but I doubt you’d regret it. Ah well, you can always take a good long break from school before making that decision!

            Liked by 1 person

          2. No problem! There’s a pretty extensive list of sources on my References page that might help you with school assignments. Not all of the sources in the Publications sub-page are peer-reviewed journal articles, but many of them are. Feel free to look through them whenever you need research materials!

            Thanks for the UBC Vancouver recommendation! It’s not that I’d be ashamed of going for a PhD, I just know it’s going to be hard. I also don’t typically thrive in the highly-structured institution of academia, so spending even more time in school doesn’t sound appealing to me. So if I commit to a PhD then I’ll need to really believe in the program and school I enroll in.

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  2. She’s a smart lady. She’s so right about conservationist not understanding farmers and the like. That’s true everywhere, that’s why it’s smart to work with in order to be more effective. Understanding their side is important and her having had a ranch background is an advantage. It’s funny that she called them farmers. When I lived in the south, they called them farmers as well. My cousin raises lots of cattle but is not referred to as a rancher. That term seems to be popular only in the west.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Conservationists tend to do what they do because they’re passionate about wildlife. That, combined with the fact that scientific knowledge is often treated as ‘superior’ to practice-based knowledge, can make it easy for them to judge farmers too harshly. It can take a lot of time and patience to overcome those culturally barriers, as Dr. Neils pointed out.

      I didn’t realize that livestock producers were called farmers in the South? Come to think of it, we used the same term in the Great Lakes region. Maybe ‘rancher’ is mostly a western term?

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Many people aren’t familiar with caracals, which is why I wanted to focus this post on them. Caracals are critically endangered locally in parts of their range, but in other regions they’re doing better. That shouldn’t be an excuse for complacency, however.

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