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Faster Than Life? How Cheetahs Cope With Relocation

Post submitted by BCI Grantee Florian J Weise.

The world is getting smaller as more and more people put pressure on wildlife habitats. This is particularly true for large predators that require vast areas. Africa’s fastest big cat, the charismatic cheetah, can outrun its prey and Usain Bolt without trouble, but it cannot outrun human impacts.

Study cheetah sprinting at full pelt. (Copyright: Courtesy of Jack Somerville)
Study cheetah sprinting at full pelt (Copyright: Courtesy of Jack Somerville).

Imagine being trapped in a cage without warning.

Suspected conflict cheetah trapped on farming property (Copyright: Courtesy of Kate Echement)
Suspected conflict cheetah trapped on farming property (Copyright: Courtesy of Kate Echement).

Someone comes and drugs you, attaches a weird necklace, puts you in yet another box and travels you for hours.The doors of that box open and you find yourself in an unknown place.

Female cheeta Aju59 released from transport crate (Copyright: Courtesy of Femke Spoor)
Female cheeta Aju59 released from transport crate (Copyright: Courtesy of Femke Spoor).

Different language, different smell, different sound, unknown people. Life just changed dramatically, but here’s your second chance. You take a last look backband dart off into a new and uncertain future.

Collared male cheetah released into southwestern Namibia (Copyright: Courtesy of Christopher James Painter)
Collared male cheetah released into southwestern Namibia (Copyright: Courtesy of Christopher James Painter).

Such relocations (or translocations) are often tried to save conflict cheetahs and to appease problems with farmers. However, these actions are rarely evaluated comprehensively. Our lack of knowledge is somewhat surprising because conservation supporters (like the Big Cats Initiative), researchers, government wildlife departments and landowners would like to know whether relocations work to reduce problems while safeguarding Africa’s most endangered cats effectively.

With support from National Geographic Society’s BCI, the researchers of N/a’an ku se Foundation in Namibia (http://www.naankuse.com/wildlife-conservation/carnivore-conservation.html) tested relocations and monitored them through GPS-satellite and intensive field tracking for several years. Namibia still supports a large number of wild cheetahs and is one of the last strongholds of the species. The results of this study are now available: https://peerj.com/articles/1346/

The work shows that individual cheetahs can be relocated successfully without moving conflict elsewhere.

Cheetahs with full bellies after feeding on a Greater kudu (Copyright: Courtesy of N/a'an ku se Foundation)
Cheetahs with full bellies after feeding on a Greater kudu (Copyright: Courtesy of N/a’an ku se Foundation).

After a period of orientation and exploration, most animals settle  and their ecology resembles that of non-relocated cheetahs.

Male cheetah Aju17 adjusting to his new environment (Copyright: Courtesy of N/a'an ku se foundation)
Male cheetah Aju17 adjusting to his new environment (Copyright: Courtesy of N/a’an ku se foundation).

Females start reproducing and relocations can help boost cheetah populations locally.

Relocated cheetah female with new-born cubs (Copyright: Courtesy of Marie-Francoise Clerc)
Relocated cheetah female with new-born cubs (Copyright: Courtesy of Marie-Francoise Clerc).

However, initial losses are high. Only half of the released animals survive the first year. Some get killed by spotted hyenas and all cheetahs eventually leave unfenced protected areas (no matter how large).

During explorations cheetahs often move farther than 500 km in only three months. Back on farmlands, persecution presents a problem again – especially for those cheetahs that stayed in captivity for long and have become accustomed to human presence. Cheetah relocations also are expensive business – one successful event costs ~$6,898 – and modelling of suitable release areas in Namibia shows that only few releases can be carried out responsibly every year.

The researchers demonstrate that relocation can be a valuable tool under the right circumstances, but they caution that the strategy cannot be a standard approach to solving conflict. From own experiences, N/a’an ku sé’s team emphasises that on-going direct work with farmers is necessary to prevent large numbers of cheetahs being trapped in the first place (see previous BCI blog: http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2012/11/19/big-cats-versus-livestock-simple-solutions-reduce-conflicts-on-namibian-farms/). As a suitable alternative, the team monitors cheetahs together with farmers, thereby giving landowners information of how the cats move and behave on their properties.

Wild cheetah marking tree on commercial farmland (Copyright: Courtesy of N/a'an ku se Foundation)
Wild cheetah marking tree on commercial farmland (Copyright: Courtesy of N/a’an ku se Foundation).

Relevant data are emailed every day and farmers can use this information to adjust their livestock husbandry and prevent conflict from happening. This way farmers can also objectively assess which cheetahs really cause conflict, if at all. This has reduced the motivation to remove cheetahs and in the long-run appears a more feasible strategy than continued relocations.

The goal we all share is to objectively assess and determine what’s best for big cats. Sometimes that means re-evaluating even some of the oldest and most-often-used conservation techniques because cheetah relocations continue in several countries. What we’ve found is that they are not consistently successful and the space available for relocations is very limited. Armed with this important information, we will continue to prioritize a much more effective and cost-efficient alternative: in situ conflict mitigation. By talking through conflicts with farmers and sharing important information regularly, cheetahs stand a greater chance of survival, and therefore sustainability for the species. Ultimately, the cheetah’s future depends on the tolerance of entire farming communities and keeping cheetahs safe where they are, instead of moving them elsewhere, will be paramount to their successful conservation.

 

Comments

  1. Alex Strachan
    Vancouver, BC
    October 23, 2015, 9:56 pm

    in my own — admittedly 2nd-hand — experience, as a frequent visitor to Namibia, the results are mixed. Hardly scientific, I know, but one can read that both ways: To supporters, it can work; to detractors, sometimes it doesn’t. From what I can tell, it all depends on whether relocated cheetahs settle down in their new territory, establishing a new home range, or whether they try their utmost to return “home.” I’ve also been told, by conservationist farmers, that no relocation is ideal: Because territory and land are in such short supply, a relocated predator is almost always displacing a predator who’s already there. Conflict inevitably ensues. More often than not, when that happens, there can only be one winner — and, by implication, a loser.