The Northern Tuli Cheetah Project
The Northern Tuli Cheetah Project was initiated early in 2012. The aims of the project are:
- Estimate the current population size and structure of cheetah in the Northern Tuli Game Reserve, eastern Botswana.
- Implement and test the effectiveness and relative costs of photographic survey for estimating carnivore numbers in low density populations.
- Determine the range use of the population, including preliminary evaluations of habitat preference, home range sizes, and overlap.
- Human-cheetah conflict assessment -
- Quantify the impact cheetah have on local livestock beyond the boundaries of the wildlife area
- Identify methods to reduce and mitigate conflict to promote coexistence.
- Identify hotspots for conflicts and potential impacts on cheetah population
- Evaluate general attitudes of local communities towards cheetahs and to conservation in general
Conservation and management planning of a species relies on accurate estimates of population sizes and an evaluation of threats faced by the species. Cheetahs are extremely difficult to survey for several reasons: invariably at low population densities, they are elusive, cryptic, and highly mobile. Cheetahs sometimes aggregate at local transitory hot spots, giving the impression of seemingly high cheetah density in an area. Additionally, their large home ranges may give a false impression of high cheetah numbers due to different sightings of the same individual at several locations. Therefore, a reliable population size estimate and a better understanding of current cheetah population status are of critical importance. In this study, a collection of photographic records of cheetahs in the NOTUGRE population will be employed to estimate population size.
The Cheetah is currently listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Global Red List (IUCN, 2011) and as Appendix I in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES). Cheetahs used to be widely distributed across Africa and south west Asia. However in the past few decades the species' distribution range and numbers has declined dramatically; a 50% decline was estimated from 1973 to 1998 with a further 25% drop by 2008. The current global estimate is 7500 cheetahs remaining.
The current status and distribution of the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) population in the Northern Tuli Game Reserve (NOTUGRE) in easternmost Botswana is largely unknown. Cheetah sightings are regularly reported from game drives within the reserve, but there has been no attempt to produce a comprehensive survey of the population in the area. At the same time, despite being protected inside the reserve, this population may be threatened due to conflicts with livestock farmers outside the reserve.
Cheetahs are subjected to a high rate of intra-guild competition and kleptoparasitism from larger carnivores such as lions (Panthera leo) and spotted hyaenas (Crocuta crocuta). These also contribute to cheetah cub mortality and, in some instances, adult mortality. For this reason cheetahs are often more successful outside of protected areas where other large predators have been extirpated, but where they come into contact with livestock farmers, who consider them a threat to their livelihood. Limitations to suitable habitat therefore can be defined by similar threats to cheetahs deriving from very different sources depending on which side of a land use boundary they use - large dominant carnivores inside protected area which they escape in livestock grazing areas outside reserves but where they then encounter intolerant livestock farmers.
Human-induced mortality can have a severe impact on overall population number and dynamics, and can contribute to local extinction, emphasizing the need for conservation actions outside protected areas for population sustainability. The ranging of cheetahs in and around the NOTUGRE including across borders into South Africa and Zimbabwe is unknown. Understanding these cheetah ranging habits and identifying the level of conflict outside the reserve is fundamental for the development of effective conflict resolution and a conservation strategy.
Principal Researcher, The Northern Tuli Cheetah Project
MSc. Candidate, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa