Could Flashing Lights Help Avert Conflict Between Herders and Pumas?

By using foxlights, which mimic a person walking with a flashlight, researchers were able to cut down big cat attacks on llamas and alpacas in the Andes.
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A Chilean puma.

A Chilean puma.

Pulsating lights placed around llama and alpaca herds warded off puma attacks during a recent experiment in Chile, suggesting the method might help avert conflict between herders and dwindling populations of the predator.

"The implications are huge," says Omar Ohrens, a postdoctoral scholar in environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and lead author of a study on the findings.

In the study by Ohrens and his colleagues published online January 3rd in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, pumas left herds alone that had Foxlights set up close to the llamas and alpacas' sleeping areas during a recent four-month calving season. During the same period, cats killed seven animals from herds that did not have the lights, which blink in a random pattern designed to mimic a person walking with a flashlight and other human activity.

The puma is a critical part of the ecology of the high plains of the Andean Plateau, also called the Altiplano, of northern Chile. Such large predators regulate the number of herbivores on the landscape, keeping the entire ecosystem in balance.

But when mountain lions pick off livestock, it threatens the livelihoods of the people who depend on that resource. In a 2016 study, Ohrens and his colleagues reported that pastoralists in this part of Chile estimate they lose 10 percent of their animals each year to pumas.

The pumas, too, are at risk following these incidents, as herders look to eliminate the threat. But research has shown that killing a predator suspected of targeting livestock doesn't always work, Ohrens said. What's more, his earlier surveys of the Aymara llama and alpaca herders of the Altiplano revealed that most people didn't want to kill pumas. That led Ohrens to find a way to identify and test a potential, non-lethal solution to this problem.

In the planning stages of this study, he asked the herders themselves to choose from a variety of potential non-lethal deterrents, and they settled on Foxlights. Developed in Australia to keep young lambs safe from foxes, Foxlights also fit the grasslands of northern Chile. The wide-open plains of the Altiplano allow for the lights to be seen from as far away as 1.6 kilometers, according to the manufacturer. And the sunlight that bathes the plateau, which sits between 3,000 and 5,500 meters above sea level, can recharge the lights' batteries during the day.

During the calving season in late 2016 and early 2017, Ohrens and his teammates compared the incidence of livestock kills in herds with lights installed nearby to deaths in herds without them.

To make sure that they weren't just witnessing a single puma zero in on herds without lights—an unlikely, but possible, situation given the large home ranges of pumas, the authors write—they set up camera traps around the herds of the 11 farmers who were part of the study. The images confirmed that at least three different cats were in the area.

In a twist, Ohrens found that the lights did not spook off Andean foxes going after young lambs. That didn't come as a shock to Ohrens, who has worked in this part of his native Chile for seven years.

"What I've seen is that Andean foxes are not very scared of humans—they can get pretty close and even take food from people's hands," he said in a statement. "So they're not going to be scared by lights that simulate human activity."

To further bolster the study's rigor, the team also moved the lights partway through the experiment from the herds that had them at the beginning of the study to the ones that didn't. They got similar results, demonstrating that the location of the herds didn't determine whether the lights were effective.

"That's why this study is so important," Adrian Treves, a co-author of the study and professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin, said in the statement. "Omar's study shows that non-lethal methods have been proven effective in multiple settings with different livestock and carnivores."

This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Mongabay.com. Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

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