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?
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.
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.
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?
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.