There are fewer than 7,100 adult cheetahs left in the wild, and their numbers keep decreasing. In fact, this cat has vanished from 90% of its range in Africa. But there has been significant population growth in South Africa, home to 18 percent of the world’s remaining cheetahs. The Endangered Wildlife Trust’s cheetah conservation project played a big role in this triumph. The project has almost doubled cheetah numbers in less than a decade.
In this article, we investigate this success story and consider some of the complexities of cheetah conservation.
EWT Cheetah Metapopulation Project
The fences that keep cheetahs safe also create problems that equally threaten their survival. This is the challenge that moved the Endangered Wildlife Trust to launch the Cheetah Metapopulation Project in 2011. The programme supports populations in several game reserves, most of them privately owned.
The project swops cheetahs between participating reserves to simulate the natural spreading out of cheetah populations. This boosts the gene pool to guard against inbreeding. It also helps custodians to keep their cheetah populations at just the right size for the available land. Furthermore, it identifies new areas of suitable cheetah habitat.
Vincent van der Merwe, coordinator of the initiative, says that there were 217 cheetahs scattered between 41 reserves in 2011. Nine years later, there are 419 spread across 60 reserves. They make up more than a third of the country’s total cheetah population. The project has been so fruitful that the EWT has to look beyond South African borders to find new translocation sites in Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia.
Cheetah Conservation Challenges
There is something disturbing about fencing in the fastest animal on land. Cheetahs are wide-ranging carnivores that exist in low densities. To say they need space is an understatement. And yet fences are essential in the face of the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.
Cheetahs need much larger areas of land to survive than other carnivore species. This makes them particularly vulnerable to habitat loss.
Cheetahs living outside reserves may kill livestock, especially in areas where prey is sparse. This causes conflict with farmers, who may kill the cats in retaliation.
Illegal wildlife trade is an obvious threat – even if it only means that a cheetah could get caught in a bush-meat snare. Unethical “legal” wildlife trade is a less obvious and far more insidious threat.
Most of the reserves that take part in the Cheetah Metapopulation Project are privately funded. The majority relies heavily on tourism revenue to fund conservation and the Covid-19 lockdown has hit hard. If you would like a novel way to contribute to this cause, have a look at our new Conservation in Action courses here.
If you’re a vet student wanting to learn more about cheetah management from an experienced wildlife vet or gain clinical EMS credits, have a look at our course here.