Why do these Botswanan cows have eyes painted on their behinds?

Eyes on cows' behinds: an approach that might seem a bit curious, but that is the subject of a serious study in Botswana. Photo credit: Ben Yexley.
Eyes on cows' behinds: an approach that might seem a bit curious, but that is the subject of a serious study in Botswana. Photo credit: Ben Yexley.


Painting eyes on bovine’s derrieres: this project by an Australian researcher in Botswana may make you laugh, but Neil Jordan is trying to stop lions from attacking cows with this simple trick. The technique may also keep the lions from being shot by Botswana ranchers.

There are thought to be about 1,800 lions living on the three reserves that Botswana shares with Zimbabwe and South Africa. Over the past 20 years, their population has dropped by about 500, according to estimates by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), principally in the reserve in the Okavango Delta, which straddles the border between Botswana and Zimbabwe. The main cause for this decline is killings by ranchers, who shoot at the lions when they attack their herds of cows.

Botswana is thus among the countries in which the eventual extinction of lions is considered "possible," according to the IUCN's reports.

Farmers frequently find the carcasses of calves or cows in the forest (at left). At right, a Botswanan farmer, carrying a rifle in case of lion attacks. Photo credit: Neil Jordan.

To avert all this bloodshed, Neil Jordan dreamt up an idea that seemed absurd but was nonetheless quite serious: to paint eyes on cows' behinds, to ward off the lions that might want to come after them. The first results, following tests conducted in 2015 with the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust, are promising.

This photo series shows the steps of the process developed by Neil Jordan's team. Photo credits: Elsa Liljeholm and Neil Jordan.

"At the start, it seemed ridiculous to me... but then I realized it made biological sense”

Neil Jordan is a doctoral student in environmental and biological sciences at the University of New South Wales, in Australia, and works for the Taronga Western Plains Zoo. He's been working on finding solutions to the problems farmers face in Botswana's rural areas.

To be honest, I was really hesitant to talk to people about this idea at the start, because it seemed totally ridiculous. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought to myself that it made biological sense. Studies have shown that butterfly wing markings that look like eyes scare off birds, or even that humans can keep animals from attacking them by wearing a mask with eyes on the backs of their heads. So why not put them on the backsides of cows?

Last year, we worked with a Botswanan herder whose lands are located in an area surrounded by two nature reserves. So he's quite exposed to predation risks to his animals. We painted eyes on the rear ends of 23 cows in a herd of 62. In three months, there were three lion attacks and three cows were killed. None of the cows we painted eyes on was attacked.

"If communities with similar problems in francophone Africa or elsewhere want to contact me, it would be a pleasure!"

To investigate the interaction between the cows and the lions, we're trying to equip both of the animals with GPS collars, in order to see if the lions that approach cows with painted eyes do indeed tend to subsequently move away from them.

Neil Jordan and his team are using GPS systems to track the animals’ movements. Photo credit: Neil Jordan.

Lots of people are sceptical about this work, and I was too, but I have to say these initial results are quite surprising. Now we're looking to do tests on herds that are a bit bigger, in Botswana to begin with. We want to test whether this method actually works, or if we've just had good luck. I'm staying prudent: I don't want to give any false hopes to farmers who are looking for a solution.

A lion wearing a GPS collar. Photo credit: Krystyna Golabek.

For the moment, we're working with a tiny budget, which doesn't allow us to have any dedicated teams. Whoever might want to help us with funding would be welcome. Eventually, we'd like to test the technique with jaguars, tigers, and also with pumas. And if communities facing similar problems are interested in working with us, in francophone Africa or elsewhere, it would be a pleasure!

If you want to contact Neil, help him out or test his approach where you live? Don't hesitate to write to us at and we'll put you in touch with him!