Latest Research and Citizen Science Combine to Reveal Precarious Situation for Cheetahs in Southern Africa
Conservation scientists in southern Africa join calls for up-listing the cheetah to Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
MAUN, BOTSWANA: In a new study, led by CLAWS Conservancy researcher Dr. Florian Weise, a group of 17 scientists collaborated to produce a detailed, evidence-based population estimate for cheetahs in Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe—an area that hosts the largest population of free-ranging cheetahs left on Earth. The research compilation is now the largest set of cheetah observations in Southern African history and results led research authors to strongly support the recent call for the IUCN to up-list the cheetah from its present Vulnerable conservation status to Endangered.
Few people have ever seen the fastest land animal chase prey across the African savannah. This fact alone tells us two important things about cheetahs: they are elusive, and thus very difficult to count. Knowing their numbers and distribution though helps us understand how the species is coping in a changing, and increasingly humanised, world.
Dr. Weise and his collaborators set out to compile the largest set of cheetah observations for southern Africa in history, collecting and verifying information from both the scientific community and the general public. Cumulatively, the team of authors have spent far over 50 years in the field researching and conserving cheetahs.
The new study “The distribution and number of cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) in southern Africa” has now been released by open-access journal PeerJ and can be accessed here:
The observations collected revealed that cheetahs in southern Africa occur over a vast 789,700 km2 – that’s 14% larger than the state of Texas, or 23% larger than France! However, the size of the area is misleading, as their calculated density estimates showed that only 3,577 adult cheetahs are likely to live in this huge area. Cheetahs are extremely wide-ranging, and their numbers are limited by the availability of natural prey, competition with larger predators like lion and hyena, and whether or not farmers persecute them due to losses of livestock and farmed game.
The Cheetah’s Precarious Situation
This study confirms that the status of cheetahs on farmlands is the most pressing conservation issue for this species. The researchers found that only 18.4% of the area where cheetahs are known to occur is formally protected. This is especially the case in Namibia, where the largest proportion of the regional cheetah population resides mostly on livestock and game farms. The study revealed that although most farmers tolerate cheetahs, a few persecute them intensively. A comparison of reproduction models with persecution records showed that these few farmers can have serious impacts on the larger population by continually removing cheetahs from their properties.
Dr. Weise said, “The future of the cheetah relies heavily on working with farmers who host these big cats on their lands, often bearing the cost of coexistence.”
Despite the vast amounts of information gathered by the team, their efforts exposed big knowledge gaps and uncertainties. Using information about cheetah habitat, human and livestock densities, they identified an area within the four countries almost as large as the confirmed range where cheetahs may live. Given the suitability of this area for cheetahs, the team estimates that another 3,250 wild adult cheetahs may occur here. The authors urge greater research effort in this ‘grey area’ to find out if there are indeed more cheetahs out there than we can prove. For example, large areas of Botswana are suitable for cheetahs, and one may assume that the iconic cat occurs widely. But up-to-date verifiable evidence was hard to find outside the popular protected areas. Zimbabwe provides the smallest known range for the species, whereas South Africa’s wild cheetahs are mostly confined to protected areas and a managed meta-population comprising over 300 animals has been established. Videos and photographs were especially useful for estimating cheetah populations in popular tourist destinations such as the Kruger National Park in South Africa.
The authors conclude that the results of this study strongly support the recent call for the IUCN to up-list the cheetah from its present Vulnerable conservation status to Endangered. This would create additional awareness about the cheetah’s precarious situation, and open up additional avenues to fund conservation and population monitoring efforts. Besides giving direction for further research, the authors provided an example of effective collaboration and transparent information sharing. By pooling all of the available information, and involving the public in monitoring efforts, researchers can assist in identifying areas of conservation concern for the cheetah.