18 Jan The show must go on – Cheetah conservation during a global pandemic
The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is classified as vulnerable on the IUCN red data list. The global population has shrunk dramatically in recent decades and numbers that used to span across Africa, India, southwest Asia and the middle-east are now much reduced and restricted to just 9% of their former range. Thankfully, South Africa has one of the few expanding populations in Africa (along with Botswana and Namibia). This is due to huge conservation efforts from numerous organisations and more recently, a little thinking outside the box and trying the unexpected!
Askari Wilderness Conservation Programme is based on Pidwa Wilderness Reserve. We are in the Limpopo province of South Africa on a 17,500 hectare wilderness area which is the perfect home and habitat for cheetah. In 2011 we joined up with the Endangered Wildlife Trust to become part of their ‘Cheetah metapopulation project’; designed to ensure the genetic and demographic viability of cheetah across South Africa on reserves like ours. While these smaller, fenced reserves are an integral part of cheetah habitats, they are limiting in that they prevent natural dispersal and therefore new genetics entering populations. Structures such as fences, roads, associated habitat loss and increasing human-wildlife conflict are all very real threats facing cheetah populations.
Working with the EWT we have introduced 9 cheetah to the reserve over the years. This involves a human-mediated movement of animals where anthropogenic factors, such as fences, wouldn’t normally allow it. The first cats were from other reserves within the metapopulation, cubs born and raised in the wild by their mother but then moved at the age of independence (roughly 18 months). We have had great success over the years and many of those cats have gone on to sire cubs or have litters of their own, giving back to the cheetah metapopulation.
Recent EWT research however, has shown that additional source populations are required to ensure the genetic viability of the cats. Although 60 reserves are now members of the project, 83% of the cheetah within those areas can be traced back to just 3 females. Metapopulation reserves are vital but other, unrelated, cheetah must also be introduced and that is where breeding programmes have recently come onto the scene.
In the last few years, cheetah have been taken from breeding programmes and released into the wild. Against the belief of many (that a captive-bred cheetah can’t survive in the wild), successes have been seen. At Askari we are trying to create some of those successes ourselves and this year, during the Covid-19 pandemic, we set about the reintroduction of 4 new cheetah to the reserve.
There is plenty of work involved in a reintroduction, from the initial sourcing of suitable cheetah, to discussions about the process and conditions and then the obtaining of necessary permits. Only then comes the actual relocation of the cats and the start of the long re-wilding process. It is well documented that the relocation of any carnivore is more likely to be successful if a soft-release protocol is used. This is due to the strong “homing” instinct that carnivores exhibit and means that, time spent in a fenced enclosure on arrival at their new site, decreases the chances of them returning ‘home’.
At Pidwa we have a predator boma which is perfect for the job, a 1 hectare area which is fully fenced to keep the cheetah in-situ when they first arrive. In the case of the captive-bred cats it is even more important as it allows the cheetah to adapt to their new area, the sights, the smells, the sounds, even vegetation within their new habitat. It also gives the reserve team time to work with them a little. In some cases, the cheetah may not have eaten meat from a carcass before, or had to contend with other visitors such as vultures or rival carnivores in their area (albeit across a fence).
And so in April, at the beginning of South Africa’s Covid-19 hard lockdown, our process for introducing cheetah began! We made contact with 2 different breeding programmes, ‘Running Wild Conservation’ in North-west province and ‘Cheetah Experience’ in the Free-state. After initial discussions, there were also reserve visits involved to check the suitability of the area. Permits then needed to be obtained, through offices that were closed for lockdown! Trips and visits needed to be made which required government “essential work” permits and also to be made around the hours imposed by lockdown curfew!
The time finally came for the cats to make their journey, again complicated by an 8 and 10 hour road trip that needed to coincide with curfew hours! Thankfully all went smoothly and in August we received 4 new cheetah. 2 brothers, Rocco and Luca came from Running Wild and 2 sisters, Rumi and Rae from Cheetah Experience. Normally we would have plenty of staff and a team of volunteers on hand to help with such arrivals and all the logistics involved. Yet in the midst of a pandemic, there were more challenges to come as we found ourselves short-handed needing to handle heavy, cheetah-filled crates, trailers and more with limited pairs of hands.
Each cheetah pair had their own boma and settled in well. The team worked tirelessly with them in the coming weeks and months, providing food, getting to know them, sometimes doing training such as dragging the carcass behind the vehicle to induce the chase instinct and increase fitness. Both pairs lost their food to vultures at times and had to adapt and learn to move it under trees and out of view.
After a month, the males were released; the females stayed in their boma a little longer but were released at the start of November. Both pairs are doing incredibly well since. They are fitted with radio tracking collars which allows the team to find them daily. We check for health and injuries, location within their territory and whether they have eaten food. While there is no question they have the instinct to hunt and kill, they may be lacking practice on the exact technique. It is possible, at times, that we may have to intervene and provide them with food if we see them struggling.
Both pairs have been incredible however and are settling in so well. We witnessed the males make their first kill within just 6 hours of release! An adult female nyala. Since then they have been completely independent and not needed any help from us. They have since branched out with their diet to include impala, tsessebe and waterbuck.
The females made their first kill on their third day out of the boma, also an adult female nyala. They have since made a further 3 kills (impala) and have also not needed assistance yet. The daily monitoring will continue. We hope that in the coming weeks and months all cheetah settle as wild, self-sufficient cats. It is at this stage that we can begin plans to join them together and hopefully hear the patter of tiny paws in the future. Then we can really say for sure that we have had success in contributing to the genetic viability of cheetah across South Africa and giving back to the metapopulation. Huge thanks to the EWT metapopulation project and their continued efforts as well as ‘Running Wild Conservation’ and ‘Cheetah Experience’ for their generous donations of cheetah to this incredible cause.