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The distribution of cheetahs in South Africa (from Buk & Marnewick, 2010)

 

The Cheetah Metapopulation Research Project

Background:

A race for survival

A cheetah sprinting after its prey at speeds of over 110 km/hr is universally regarded as part of our finest world wildlife heritage. Unfortunately, the fastest animal species on land is also in a race for survival. During the past 35 years the estimated number of cheetahs has dropped from 30 000 to 7 500, and IUCN is close to listing the species as "endangered".

Small reserves with a big role

In South Africa cheetahs have been reintroduced to at least 38 relatively small, fenced reserves. In 2009 these reserves held 280 cheetahs, but most of the reserves have space for more cheetahs and there is potential for reintroduction into additional suitable reserves. In comparison there are between 525 and 675 free roaming cheetahs left in South Africa, mainly in large parks and ranches along the Northern border.

Predator - prey balancing act

However, the small reserves also encounter big problems with cheetah conservation. Under conducive circumstances cheetahs can breed fast. They may impact heavily on local populations of small and medium sized antelopes. This will lead to cheetah starvation and in case of rare antelopes - for instance suni or oribi - the impact can also be undesirable from other economic and conservation points of view. Quite the opposite scenario can play out in small reserves where lions roam. In some cases lions have apparently wiped out an entire cheetah population in a short space of time. Finding a predator - prey balance in small reserves is a challenge, which will be well assisted by scientific research.

Managing small populations as one big

Each small reserve can only hold a small population of cheetahs, which is inherently prone to inbreeding and skewed sex and age ratios. This problem can be solved be managing all the small populations as one group of populations with exchanges of cheetahs - a metapopulation. This requires cooperation between reserves assisted by research and monitoring.

 

Next - project aims and participants

 

Ken Buk