The global cheetah population has plummeted over the last 100 years. In the early 1900s an estimated 100,000 roamed the earth. Now there are only 7,500, a decline of more than 90%. They are extinct in 20 countries and occupy only 17% of their historic range.
This decline has been caused by the loss and fragmentation of their natural habitats, a decline in their prey base, the illegal trade in wildlife and conflict with humans for space.
Cheetahs still occur across most of Africa but there are two areas that are of particular significance. The first is southern African - Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. The second is East Africa - Kenya and Tanzania.
Throughout the cheetahs' range there are projects working to conserve the few remaining animals. The majority of the conservation efforts and research published on wild cheetahs comes from Namibia, Tanzania - the Serengeti specifically - and Botswana.
Comparatively little is known about cheetahs in Kenya. In the last 15 years only two peer-reviewed publications have been published on cheetahs in the area. One was on mange and the other on human-wildlife conflict. As a consequence of this scarcity of data a new initiative, the Mara Cheetah Project, has been launched to save the country’s dwindling population.
In Kenya, the Maasai Mara region towards the south west of the country boasts abundant wildlife and vast plains. It is also renowned for its annual wildebeest migration and high densities of predators, including cheetahs. Cheetahs in the Maasai Mara face a kaleidoscope of threats. Most are very similar to the threats faced by cheetah populations in the rest of Africa as well as in Iran.
The human population of Kenya has tripled over the last 45 years to over 42 million, increasing the need for land and space. This has posed the biggest threat to cheetahs. They have large home-ranges. Females can cover an area of over 1500 km2, leading to a conflict over land. Cheetah populations are severely affected by habitat loss and fragmentation.
With an increasing human-wildlife interface there is also an increased risk of disease transmission from domestic animals to wildlife. In the Maasai Mara National Reserve 12.5% of the cheetah population has been diagnosed with sarcoptic mange. This is a skin disease caused by the Sarcoptes mite that is similar to human scabies.
The disease leads to weight loss and weakness. This results in lower hunting success, lower fertility rates and increased vulnerability to predation. When severe, mange can result in death.
In addition, stress levels can reduce immunity in animals, making them more prone to contracting the disease. Elevated stress levels can also have severe consequences on behaviour and reproductive success.
Stress levels can rise for a range of reasons including predation risk, competition and social circumstances. Human based factors can also elevate stress levels in animals. These include mechanised vehicles, livestock and rowdy tourists.
The Mara cheetah project
The Kenya Wildlife Trust has set up the Mara Cheetah Project to tackle the problem. Its aim is to establish the number of cheetahs in the Mara, identify the threats they face and, where possible, to find ways to mitigate the threats.
The project is using a research-driven conservation approach through a combination of long-term population monitoring, ecological research and community-based conservation.
The project team is collecting data on cheetahs to help understand and mitigate some of these threats. Like the human fingerprint, each cheetah has a unique spot pattern. This is used to identify individuals so that team members can effectively monitor the Mara’s cheetah population.
This allows the project to determine important parameters such as densities, number of births and deaths, ranging behaviour and disease prevalence. In addition, whenever possible the team collects biological samples in the form of blood, tissue and faeces.
Education, community involvement and capacity building are central to the conservation efforts in the Mara. Some of these include:
anti-poisoning campaigns to discourage people in the communities from using poisons to kill predators,
school visits and creative activities to engage children in wildlife-related issues, and
human-wildlife conflict questionnaires to identify conflict hotspots to help management plans and enhance the distribution of conservation efforts in most affected areas.
The hope is that by building understanding and tolerance there is a chance that cheetahs and humans can continue to co-exist in this magnificent ecosystem.