By Vincent van der Merwe, Cheetah Metapopulation coordinator: EWT Carnivore Conservation Programme
Cheetah once occurred in large and connected populations that stretched all the way from South Africa up to Egypt and westwards to Senegal. Today, these populations have become severely fragmented into 29 subpopulations, with only one population estimated to number more than 1000 individuals. This is in large part due to the rapid growth of the human population – in Africa, this population has increased from approximately 100 million people in 1850 to 1.2 billion today and will continue to grow over the coming years, while during the same period, the resident range of the Cheetah decreased by 89%. Continued substantial growth of the human population will mean further habitat loss for Cheetah, further fragmentation of existing habitat, further loss of prey, more retaliatory killings due to livestock predation and more illegal trade in Cheetah as they are sought for pets by the ever expanding elite in the developing world.
This outlook may seem depressing, but all hope is not lost. Since 1965, conservation efforts in South Africa have resulted in the reintroduction of wild Cheetah into 53 smaller, fenced reserves across the country. Despite major economic development and human population growth in South Africa, our wild Cheetah population has increased from approximately 400 individuals in 1965 to over 1200 today. South Africa is the only country, worldwide, that has seen considerable growth in Cheetah numbers. So what exactly have we done differently?
We have embraced ‘fortress conservation’ whereby humans are fenced out of wildlife areas and wildlife is fenced in to reduce chances of escape into human dominated landscapes, thereby reducing the risks of human-wildlife conflict. The tourism industry has also boomed in South Africa and these tourists want to see large, charismatic carnivores. Today, wild Cheetahs are highly sought after in South Africa, to the extent that reserves are willing to pay for them. These ecotourism-based reserves are now more profitable than livestock farming, and more than 11, 130 km² of safe habitat has been created for Cheetah out of former livestock farming areas. The combined size of these 53 newly established reserves is more than half the surface area of Kruger National Park, and they currently support a population of 332 Cheetahs.
However, the fenced approach is not without its limitations. When wildlife managers fence wildlife in, the onus is on them to manage that wildlife responsibly. After observing disturbing levels of inbreeding in several fenced reserves in South Africa, the Endangered Wildlife Trust launched the Cheetah Metapopulation Project in 2011. The overarching idea behind metapopulation management is that one population on one fenced reserve is not genetically viable in the long term, however, 53 small populations are viable if managed as a single population. The Cheetah Metapopulation Project has now been operational for five years. During this period, Cheetah have been reintroduced into 12 new metapopulation reserves. Cheetah numbers are up from 241 to 332 and 112 Cheetah have been relocated between metapopulation reserves to prevent inbreeding. Recent genetic studies have indicated that metapopulation Cheetahs are now genetically healthier than free ranging Cheetahs in South Africa. The establishment of the Cheetah Metapopulation Project has proven that it is possible to find safe space for carnivores in human dominated landscapes. Although wide open spaces for wildlife are a thing of the past, there are still numerous smaller fragments of natural habitat that are suitable for the reintroduction of carnivores. Fencing these fragments prevents human – carnivore conflict, allows for wildlife to proliferate and encourages tourism. It is time that this model is exported into the rest of Africa. For the first time since the establishment of the Cheetah Metapopulation Project, surplus Cheetah from reserves in South Africa will be used for reintroduction efforts in Malawi, Swaziland and Mozambique. This work is made possible through the support of the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative, Species Survival Plan, Scovill Zoo, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, St Louis Zoo, Woolworths and Relate.