Thursday, 14 December 2017

New Study Confirms Not Many Cheetahs Left in Southern Africa; More Work to be Done in Botswana

Ground-breaking scientific collaboration adds to calls to up-list cheetah status from Vulnerable to Endangered, and reaffirms the importance of Botswana for cheetah conservation.

The cheetah may be able to run faster than any other animal, but it can’t hide from researchers determined to know how many of them remain in the wild. The importance of knowing how many cheetahs there are, and where they occur, cannot be overstated. Conservation management plans for the species rely heavily on this information. In particular, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) uses this information to decide the status of a species. Cheetahs are currently classified as Vulnerable, but this research adds impetus to the call by conservation scientists to up-list the species to Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

The Cheetah Counting Challenge

To answer the call for better information, a group of 17 conservation scientists, including five from Botswana, produced the largest dataset of verifiable cheetah records in history. Besides using their own records from collared cheetahs, track (spoor) counts, and camera traps, they sought to include photographs and videos produced by the general public for social media. Of the latter records, only those with a confirmed location and date when the image or video was taken could be included to ensure the greatest accuracy possible.

Amazingly, they produced accurate population density estimates for 35% of the cheetah’s range in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. This level of accuracy is unheard of for large carnivores over such a broad study area. Indeed, their proven range for cheetahs in these countries is a vast 789,700 sq. km – 32% larger than the whole of Botswana! They further report that cheetahs could occur in nearly double that area, given the suitability of the remaining habitat for which they could not confirm cheetah presence. 

The Importance of Botswana

Despite the huge area, the number of cheetahs they estimate to live in the proven range is only 3,577 adults. Given the current Africa-wide population estimate for cheetahs is 7,100, this study confirms southern Africa as a stronghold for this species. Of the four countries covered by this study, Namibia and Botswana support more cheetahs than the other two countries. In particular, the ecoregion known as the Kalahari Xeric Savannah, covering south-western Botswana and central-eastern Namibia, supports the highest number of cheetahs in southern Africa. Due to its geographic location, Botswana is at the heart of southern Africa’s cheetah population. This makes the country of special importance to the species.

Within Botswana, the Ghanzi and Kgalagadi Districts are likely to support most of the cheetahs, and are thus critical for conserving the species. Although the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and Kgalagadi Trans-Frontier Parks provide large protected areas within these Districts, cheetahs are known to thrive more outside of protected areas than inside. The main reason for this is that they are outcompeted by larger carnivores like lions and spotted hyaenas, which occur in high densities inside protected areas.

Derek Keeping, who provided much of the data for this work by counting cheetah tracks in these key Districts, is especially concerned about how the land between protected areas is used: “Currently, about half of Ghanzi and most of Kgalagadi Districts are zoned as Wildlife Management Areas (25,000 sq. km and 40,000 sq. km, respectively). The urgent challenge for Botswana is to avoid treading down the path its neighbours did in carving up public lands for fenced ranch holdings, and instead facilitate creative wilderness tourism and sustainable wildlife use opportunities for the remote communities residing within these vulnerable Kalahari Wildlife Management Areas.”

The fact that this globally important cheetah population relies largely on farmland to survive shows that farmers are crucial to conserving this charismatic big cat. Although tourists love to see cheetahs, farmers often bear the costs associated with supporting the cheetah population. Cheetahs generally prefer hunting wild prey, but they can kill goats, sheep, and even young calves and foals. Dr. Florian Weise, the lead author for this study from Claws Conservancy, says: “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.” 

Rebecca Klein from Cheetah Conservation Botswana emphasises the roles of both appropriate land use planning and working with farmers in Botswana: “Ensuring that livestock farming communities have the tools and the incentives to minimise conflict incidents is one approach, along with equally important efforts to diversify livelihoods towards wildlife and culturally based tourism which will bring the species a value in the eyes of the people with which they must share the land to survive. We hope this paper will be a landmark in providing policy makers with the spatial and population information required to make responsible decisions regarding land use changes in the region.”

Derek Keeping, Dr. Glyn Maude (Kalahari Research and Conservation), Rebecca Klein and Jane Horgan (both Cheetah Conservation Botswana) all contributed scientific records for cheetahs in Botswana. Although they provided valuable records for cheetahs living on farmland and protected areas in the proven cheetah range, large areas in the Kgalagadi and Ngamiland Districts that are considered potential cheetah range have not yet been surveyed. The new study revealed that understudied areas such as these in southern Africa could support another 3,250 cheetahs, which would further demonstrate the importance of Botswana and her neighbours for cheetah conservation. There is therefore much work still to be done, to more effectively count the current cheetah population in Botswana, and conserve the species for future generations. 

By Gail C. Potgieter