Cheetah, a specialist member of the cat family and the fastest land animal on earth, has suffered a major population decline in the last 100 years. Their numbers have gone from a possible 100 000 in the 1900s to about 10 000 worldwide now. There are about 1 150 cheetah in SA, the third-largest population on earth, after Botswana with about 2 000 cheetah and Namibia with about 2 500.
Until 1965, cheetah were classified as vermin by provincial legislation in South Africa and destroyed by farmers who suffered stock losses due to predation. After 1965, a practice was instituted to remove cheetahs from commercial farmland in SA and Namibia and relocate them to small fenced reserves, which included private game farms and nature reserves larger than 2 000ha. Under this system 451 cheetah were relocated to 48 small reserves. That number has reduced to 283 and is declining at 5,7% a year.
This practice was stopped in 2009 after scientists, conservationists, farmers, NGOs and environment officials, agreed that it was not benefiting farmers or cheetahs, says Vincent van der Merwe, Cheetah Metapopulation Coordinator of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s (EWT) Carnivore Conservation Programme. The strategy has shifted to metapopulation management which acknowledges the value of local sub-populations of free-roaming cheetah, connected by human mediated translocations.Although predator-farmer conflict remains, the farmland free roaming cheetah make up about a third of the SA population.
In 1998, the Namibian Government, advised by the Large Carnivore Management Association of Namibia (LCMAN), nationalised cheetah ownership and prohibited further cheetah export from Namibian farms into small fenced reserves in South Africa. Cheetah predation on domestic stock is said to be more widespread in Namibia than it is in SA. Namibian farmers have reportedly become more tolerant towards cheetah, and more informed about how to seek help if they have a problem.
According to Vincent, taking cheetah from free roaming populations and putting them into fenced reserves meant that “cheetah were effectively moved to a sink population as there was no co-ordinated strategy in place for their management in small fenced reserves in South Africa.
“Reintroductions were unsuccessful as predator- naïve cheetah were effectively sent to their deaths on predator-rich reserves.” In some cases the cheetah left the reserves through poorly maintained boundary fences and made their way back to agricultural areas. “This led to further predator-farmer conflict,” says Vincent.
The eradication of lion from commercial farmland contributed to cheetah survival, but the switch from cattle ranching to game farming and the subsequent increase of the resident range of free-roaming cheetah on farmland resulted in heightened conflict in the late 1990s. According to Vincent, the decline of cheetah on small fenced reserves, apart from high levels of predation, is also due to the sale of cheetah to captive centers, single sex introductions and contraception.
These reserve-scale objectives are generally driven by financial objectives and by the low carrying capacity of enclosed reserves. A cheetah needs the equivalent of one springbok every third day and many reserves need to either limit or recover the costs of predation.
Wild and managed
Captive breeding institutions do not play a role in species restoration, unless the species is on the brink of extinction, says Vincent. “Captive cheetah are going through the initial stages of domestication and should not be mixed with wild cheetah. The captive population and the metapopulation in the 48 fenced reserves must sustain their own populations without continual supply from farmland. Wild cheetah face different threats including persecution and habitat fragmentation.”
Where cheetah were introduced onto reserves with no predator pressure, founder populations of five cheetah could grow to 40 in five years. Apart from inbreeding problems, these animals would have a profound effect on prey populations and discourage other reserves from taking cheetah.
“In 2011 the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) launched the Cheetah Metapopulation Project in an attempt to make the cheetah metapopulation on 48 small fenced reserves self-sustaining, to stop cheetah losses to captivity and to implement a more co-ordinated relocation strategy.” This involves moving cheetah between the reserves to maintain genetic integrity and demographic viability says Vincent.
Free-roaming cheetah range the fringe areas of cattle and game ranching areas mostly along the northern border of South Africa. The EWT views the free-roaming population as important from a conservation perspective. Namibian beef producers exporting to the EU are paid a premium price for their product if they can get the predator-friendly stamp of approval. SA farmers who want to exploit beef and venison export markets could also take advantage of this trend, which is catching on locally with some food retail businesses already marketing predator- friendly products.
“The challenge is to balance reserve management objectives with national conservation objectives to ensure that the cheetah population in fenced reserves is sustainable in the long-term and contributes to cheetah conservation,” says Vincent.
Contact Vincent van der Merwe on 074 166 0410 or email [email protected]
Sources: Shifting conservation paradigms: Cheetah on commercial farmland in South Africa by Vincent van der Merwe,
EWT. Cheetah cub survival revisited. M G L Mills and M E J Mills Journal of Zoology April 2013; Environmental
Biodiversity Management Act no 10 of 2004; www.cheetah.co.za; www.cheetah.org; www.environment.gov.za.