Fences are no boundary to saving cheetahs

Author: Claire Miller (Published in the Ecological Society of America https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1002/fee.1995)

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) populations worldwide are declining due to increasing human-wildlife conflict, but South Africa is bucking the trend. From just 400 cheetahs left on two reserves in 1965, the country is now home to the world’s only growing wild population, in part due to the emergence of private nature reserves cashing in, post-apartheid, on toursits flocking back to see wildlife.

But while the reserves complement national parks, the fences essential for keeping cheetahs safe from human persecution also prevents the animals from dispersing, explains Vincent van der Merwe of the Endangered Wildlife Trust EWT; Cape Town, Africa).

“We have to come to terms with the fact that humans and wildlife don’t coexist very well. Because cheetahs are low-density, wide-ranging species, they’re going to wander out of safe environments and…come into conflict with livestock farmers and get caught in bushmeat snares”, continues van de Merwe. “Fences protect cheetahs from coming into our environments where they’ll be killed, but the moment you fence, there’s no opportunity for natural gene flow”.

The answer in human-dominated landscapes is the EWT’s Cheetah Metapopulation Project (www.cheetah-population.org.za), initiated in 2011 to provide “human-mediated genetic flow”. The project analyses the genetic makeup of individual cheetahs and swaps animals among reserves to boost diversity.

A minimum of 1000 cheetahs is needed to maintain a viable population. South Africa has a total of 1200, but the largest stronghold is only around 400 in Kruger National Park. Another 350 live on the 57 private reserves and state parks participating in the metapopulation project, but each of these has only about six individuals.

“So, if we were not doing this, cheetahs would ne inbreeding and would not have much conservation value”, says van de Merwe. But the genetic pool remains shallow, and van der Merwe is exploring whether captive cheetahs may usefully contribute despite not being subject to natural evolutionary pressures.

While some captive cheetahs have been successfully “rewilded”, research is underway to better understand the risks and ensure only the fittest and strongest are released. “We can’t be sending a bunch of dummy animals to their deaths in fenced reserves with high concentrations of lions and leopards”.

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