Cheetah conservation

Cheetah in Tanzanian

A little over a century ago, cheetah roamed across much of Africa and southwest Asia. Today, barely more than 7,000 of these elusive and startlingly beautiful cats remain in the wild. A study, led by ZSL’s Dr Sarah Durant, shows that remaining populations continue to decline.  

A Cheetah cub in the Serangeti in Tanzania, taken on conservation Programme's ongoing field work with Cheetahs.

Range Wide Conservation 

The current cheetah population, whilst small in numbers, is distributed over 3 million km2, covering 21 countries. Individual cheetah may move over thousands of square kilometres and across international boundaries. Conserving cheetah on such a massive scale is daunting. But little is more important to ZSL’s cheetah team than finding ways to make this work. In 2007, in close partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the IUCN Cat Specialist Group, ZSL launched an innovative international coordinated approach for cheetah conservation over the large scale needed. This programme is now known as the Range Wide Conservation Programme for Cheetah and African Wild Dog (RWCP), and also provides support for another wide ranging species with similar conservation needs to cheetah, the African wild dog.  

In order to meet the challenges confronting cheetah survival, ZSL’s cheetah conservation programme aims to:

  1. Develop and put in place nationally supported frameworks for cheetah conservation in the form of Regional Conservation Strategies and National Conservation Action Plans. These now cover 18 countries and the majority of cheetah distributional range.
  2. Coordinate implementation of these frameworks.
  3. Identify and focus on gaps in implementation with critical importance for cheetah survival.
  4. Deliver high quality science to improve the effectiveness of cheetah conservation.

We work closely with range state governments, providing support and training to enable wildlife authorities to better safeguard their cheetah populations.  

Cheetah Landscapes

Cheetahs are never numerous, and depend on large connected landscapes for their survival, yet pressures on land are increasing across the African continent in order to support and feed a growing human population.

These burgeoning impacts make combatting the loss and fragmentation of cheetah habitat one of the biggest and most intractable challenges to cheetah survival. Addressing this challenge is now a key focus of ZSL, driven through the RWCP’s Cheetah Landscapes Project.

In ZSL’s Cheetah Landscapes Project, we aim to safeguard four large, transboundary cheetah landscapes encompassing a representative range of habitats for cheetah: 

  • The Serengeti-Mara-Tsavo landscape of Kenya and Tanzania;
  • The Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (Angola Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe);
  • The WAP Complex (the W and Pendjari National Parks and surrounding areas) of Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger, and;
  • The Ahaggar/Ajjer landscape in southern Algeria bordering Mali, Libya and Niger. 

 

Delivering relevant science for cheetah conservation

Of the 33 populations of cheetah that remain, only two support more than 1,000 cheetah. One of these occurs in the Serengeti-Mara-Tsavo landscape in east Africa. The Serengeti National Park thus harbours a core part of one of the world’s most important cheetah populations. Here, since 1991, ZSL has undertaken an in-depth long term study of a wild cheetah population: The Serengeti Cheetah Project.

This project, originally initiated in 1974, has followed individually recognisable cheetah in this population over generations, and has told us much what we know about wild cheetah today. This study provides the scientific foundation to ZSL’s approach to the conservation of the species. 

This long term study has demonstrated, for the first time, the large home ranges of cheetah (some ranging over more than 1000km2), and their relatively low density compared with other African large carnivores. It has uncovered the semi-sociality of cheetah, where males are social and females solitary, and used DNA extracted from scat of known cheetah to show that female cheetah are highly promiscuous. 

Yet even in the Serengeti, cheetah face serious threats. Tourism has increased rapidly over recent years, and the core study area has experienced a particularly dramatic rise in visitor impacts. These impacts include separation of cubs from their families, disruption of hunts, and mortality on roads.

Maintaining consistent monitoring of this globally important population in the face of these threats is a key priority. By identifying and combating potential threats to cheetah in the ecosystem, ZSL will continue to safeguard the Serengeti cheetah population within our east African cheetah landscape. 

The Tanzania cheetah watch

As well as the scientific work, we are using 'Cheetah Watch' leaflets to persuade tourists in Tanzania to send us their photos of cheetahs, which can be matched with spot pattern records and used to monitor cheetah population size across Tanzania.

People involved

  • ZSL’s Sarah Durant manages the Cheetah and carnivore conservation project

Partners & Sponsors

  • National Carnivore conservation Centre
  • Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI)
  • Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA)
Daniel Sprawson

Monitoring cheetahs across large landscapes is challenging and time consuming for conservationists. ZSL's Dr. Sarah Durant explores whether the answer to finding cheetahs lies with with another animal: dogs. 

Land Rover crossing the Zambezi
Surveying cheetahs in the remote landscapes can involve logistical challenges – including trying to put Land Rovers onto very small barges to cross very large rivers

I don’t know at what point it dawned on me that, of all the crazy things wildlife ecologists might get up to, this ranked as one of the most ridiculous. Was it during my discussions with a local airline asking them if they could fly freshly collected cheetah poop cross-country? Was it when we were forced to squeeze three large four wheel drive vehicles onto a tiny barge to cross the Zambezi, a large and potentially crocodile inhabited river? Or was it, for reasons that will become clear below, when we staked out dog poop and watched, despondently, as it was rapidly ferried away by a spectacular diversity of dung beetles? 

How did I end up in Liuwa Plain National Park in a remote corner of western Zambia, with Matt Becker, the Director of the Zambian Carnivore Programme (ZCP), Working Dogs for Conservation (WDC), Green Dogs and the Zambia Department of National Parks and Wildlife (formerly ZAWA), walking dogs and looking for cheetah scat?  

Cheetahs

First, some background on cheetahs…

Cheetahs are Africa’s rarest big cat. Only an estimated 7,000 individuals are thought to survive in the wild. They’re spread across 32 populations covering a vast area of more than 3 million square kilometres. Cheetah densities are never higher than two or three cheetahs per 100 square kilometres and can be as low as one cheetah per 4,000 square kilometres. Lion density can be up to about 16.85 lions per 100 square kilometres. What’s more, in areas where cheetahs are persecuted, due to conflict with livestock and game keepers, they may flee before you are ever likely to even see them.

Cheetahs’ rarity and elusiveness poses a problem for conservationists. To conserve the species, we need to know where they still persist, and whether their numbers are increasing or decreasing. But how can we quickly and cheaply estimate their abundance?

Over more than two decades of studying and conserving cheetahs, I have tried many ways of counting them. I have tried simply looking for cheetahs and individually identifying them. This works well. But it requires cheetahs that don’t flee from vehicles, an open habitat – and a lot of time and patience. In short, this approach only works on the Serengeti plains and has been key to our long-term Serengeti Cheetah Project which has gathered information on individually known cheetah for decades.

I have tried counting spoor – cheetah footprints left in the dust of dirt roads. Even in the Serengeti, where cheetah densities are at their highest, I had to drive an average of 50km to find just a single spoor. At least 30 such observations are needed for a reliable density estimate.

Remote camera traps can also work in some circumstances and citizen science in tourist areas. But none of these methods work across different habitats, and all need substantial infrastructure and considerable investment in time.

Could the answer to finding cheetah lie with another animal? Dogs have some of the world’s most sensitive snouts. We put these to the test in a remote corner of Zambia.

Tanzania Cheetah_Sarah Durant
Only an estimated 7,000 cheetahs are thought to survive in the wild

The importance of poop

One of the things dogs can sniff out very successfully – as any canine’s owner will know – is poop.

But poop has important properties beside smell. Food, as it passes through the digestive tract and rectum, accumulates DNA from the intestinal and rectal walls, which becomes embedded within the poop. This DNA is a unique genetic signature of individuals. Therefore if you can find cheetah scat, you can extract DNA and identify the genotype of that individual.

Cheetahs defecate at least once a day, hence cheetah scat should occur across a landscape more frequently than the cheetah themselves. It follows that, if you can find enough scat and extract DNA from it, you may be able to estimate the numbers of individual cheetah in the population. Finding scat, rather than cheetah, has the added advantage in that scat doesn’t run away.

So far, so good. But there is a flaw in this plan. Cheetahs, who are largely non territorial, don’t defecate in nice, easy to find, prominent locations. As a result, their scat is extremely difficult to detect.

Harnessing the power of the canine snout

This is where the poop-detecting power of the canine snout comes into play. Domestic dogs are increasingly playing an important role in conservation. Organisations such as Working Dogs for Conservation, and Green Dogs specialise in training domestic dogs for conservation work. They harness the dogs’ natural poop detection ability, by training them to find poop of a particular species, signal their trainer when they have found it, and, above all, resist the temptation to eat any poop they find.

Could domestic dogs be the key to counting cheetah? Together with my colleagues from the Zambian Carnivore Programme and the Zambia Department of National Parks and Wildlife, we teamed up with Working Dogs for Conservation and Green Dogs to put domestic dogs to the test. This is what brought a team of large carnivore conservationists, two dogs (Faust and Pepin) and their trainers to a remote corner of western Zambia, where a low density, but unknown, population of cheetah still survives in and around the Liuwa Plain National Park.

Using dogs to find cheetahs
Pepin, and his canine colleague Faust, were very successful at finding cheetah scat

Disappearing poop

At first, the dogs struggled to find scat on our pre-designated dog walking transects. This was when we started to notice the conspicuous absence of the dogs’ poop around our camp. On closer inspection, we were alarmed to discover that, no sooner had a new deposition of poop been made, a small army of dung beetles appeared and started rolling it away in large bundles.

A large healthy pile of steaming dog poop could disappear completely in a matter of hours. Having been an observer of cheetah poop in the Serengeti over many years, this was a first for me, and it caused me a substantial amount of anxiety.

Fortunately, as the dogs moved south, they started to find cheetah scat laden with bone and hair. This, presumably, was much less appealing to a passing dung beetle.

In fact, the dogs turned out to be very successful at finding cheetah scat. In all, they found 27 scats over a survey area of 2,400 square kilometres. Humans, on similar transects looking for spoor, found none. This neatly demonstrated the superiority of the canine snout over the human eye when it came to detecting the presence of cheetah.

Estimating population size

These scats were combined with a number of opportunistically collected scat. The DNA extracted from the scat samples were of poor quality, and so interpreting the genotypes wasn’t always easy.

However, we were able to generate an estimate of between 17-19 cheetah in the area, with a density of 6-7 individuals per 1000 sqaure kilometres. The preliminary estimate of genetic effective population size was low, at just 8-14 individuals, and requires further investigation.

Many areas where cheetah still survive are remote and difficult to access. Prior to this study, there were no viable methods for obtaining reliable information on cheetah abundance in most of these areas. The beauty of using detection dogs was that surveys could be conducted on foot, and the whole survey took not much more than three weeks, although genetic work could take substantially more time.

Our study, therefore, provides an important step forward in our ability to detect cheetahs across large landscapes, monitor them and assess population trends. Such information is critical for mobilising conservation action and resources to halt the global decline of this elusive and secretive big cat.

This blog was adapted from a version that appeared in ‘The Conversation, Africa’. 

The Conversation logo

Find out more about how ZSl is working to conserve cheetahs

 

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Daniel Sprawson

Our recent report on global cheetah decline provides alarming reading. ZSL's Dr. Sarah Durant, lead author of the research and Project Leader for the Rangewide Conservation Program for Cheetah and African Wild Dog, explains more in this blog.

Cheetah in Tanzania
The cheetah is now restricted to less than 10% of its historical distribution, and survives in just 33 populations, most of which number fewer than 100 individuals. Added to this perilous predicament is the fact that most cheetah live outside protected areas. There they face multiple threats including loss of habitat and prey; conflict with livestock and game keepers; and illegal wildlife trade in live cheetah for pets and dead cheetah for skins.

Recent extinctions have been documented in western and central Africa, and there has been an estimated decline of 85% in Zimbabwe over the last 16 years. For those cheetah populations where there is sufficient information, most are declining. This evidence, together with ongoing pressures outside protected areas, led us to recommend that the IUCN Red List threat status of cheetah is up-listed from Vulnerable to Endangered.

The worsening of the threat status of cheetah should act as a wakeup call. Urgent action is needed if the survival of cheetah is to be secured.

Dr. Sarah Durant, the lead author of the cheetah study, in a cheetah conservation truck in Tanzania
Dr. Sarah Durant is the lead scientist behind the cheetah study
Undoubtedly, cheetah are a particularly challenging species to conserve. Although they are not the largest cat, less than a third the weight of a lion, they are one of the widest ranging, and may travel across areas in excess of 1,000km2 every year. They move this widely to find their prey, and because they need to avoid other large predators, including lion and spotted hyena, which may kill their cubs and steal their kills. But this also means that cheetah occur at much lower densities than other big cats, with densities seldom exceeding 2/100km2.

In the Sahara, where a critically endangered population of cheetah still survives, we have documented densities as low as only one cheetah per 4,000km2. Thus cheetah need conservation over a much larger scale than is usually seen in terrestrial conservation.

To halt cheetah decline, we will have to surmount the difficulties of conserving a rare, wide-ranging and elusive big cat. But we also have to confront the realities of conservation in the developing countries where cheetah still survive.

Communities who share their land with cheetah may face a daily challenge just to feed themselves and their families. They cannot afford to pay the costs of losing their precious livestock to cheetah, even if this is a relatively rare event.

Maasai and sheep
Cheetah will only be able to survive alongside pastoralists, such as the Maasai here in northern Tanzania, if we can find innovative new ways to incentivize their protection across large multiple-use landscapes

That there is international public support for cheetah and other iconic megafauna is beyond doubt. This is evidenced by millions of international visitors who may travel thousands of miles to see such wildlife, and by the further millions who avidly watch wildlife programs streaming into their homes. We only lack effective means to channel the value that this wildlife generates into local communities that bear the real costs of living with cheetah and other problematic species.

Yet much has already been achieved. ZSL’s and WCS’s joint Range Wide Conservation Program for Cheetah and African Wild Dog has been working with range state governments for nearly 10 years, and have helped to put in place Regional Strategies and National Action Plans that provide a roadmap for the conservation of cheetah together with African wild dogs (the latter a species with similar ecology and facing similar threats to cheetah).

These strategies and plans have the strong support of range state governments and conservation NGOs and lay out a list of all the actions that need to be undertaken to secure the survival of both species. More resources are needed to implement these roadmaps, and we also need innovative new ways for communities to benefit from the presence of wildlife.

Standing cheetah in Tanzania
The future of cheetah depends on their survival alongside people across large multiple-use landscapes
Over coming decades Africa faces a critical period for its biodiversity. The continent’s human population is predicted to double by 2050, and the need to support and feed more people will exert unprecedented pressures on its wildlife and environment. However, lessons from Europe show that we should not give up hope. Here large carnivores faced imminent extinction towards the end of the 20th century. Yet today, due to protection and restoration programs, combined with policies that help foster coexistence between people and wildlife, there has been a resurgence of bears, wolves and lynx.  People and large carnivores can live together, even when human densities are relatively high.

For cheetah, we urgently need to find the political will and the financial means to enable people and wildlife to coexist, and for both to prosper. Only then can we be sure that future generations will be able to continue to marvel at the sight of a cheetah at full speed, which approach those seen on our fastest motorways. If we fail, the fate of the cheetah will be in doubt.

Cheetah conservation

 

*This blog also appears on National Geographic

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ZSL London Zoo

A blog for lovers of ZSL London Zoo, bringing you extraordinary animal facts and exclusive access to the world's oldest scientific zoo.

ZSL Whipsnade Zoo

Do you love wildlife? Discover more about our amazing animals at the UK's biggest zoo!

Conservation

We're working around the world to conserve animals and their habitats, find out more about our latest achievements.

Science

From the field to the lab, catch up with the scientists on the cutting edge of conservation biology at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology.

Education

A day in Discovery and Learning at ZSL is never dull! The team tell us all about the exciting sessions for school children, as well as work further afield.

Working for Wildlife

Ever wondered what a typical day as a zookeeper looks like, or what it's like to be a videographer at ZSL? Now you can find out!

Artefact of the month

Every month, one of the pieces held in ZSL’s Library and at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo will feature here as Artefact of the Month.

Wild About Magazine

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Chagos Expedition

The Chagos archipelago is a rare haven for marine biodiversity. Hear from the team about our projects to protect the environments in the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).

Nelson's Island Expedition

ZSL Institute of Zoology researchers are embarking on an exciting fieldwork expedition to Nelson’s Island in the Chagos Archipelago. Throughout the month, the team will share their research and experiences on an uninhabited tropical island!

Asia Conservation Programme

ZSL works across Asia, from the famous national parks of Nepal to marine protected areas in the Philippines. Read the latest updates on our conservation.

Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation

An Open Access journal for research at the interface of remote sensing, ecology and conservation.