Cheetahs seek refuge on farmland, complicating conservation

Southern Africa’s cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) population is falling, researchers found, and most live on private farmlands where conservation efforts are more difficult.

The findings were based on unique research that relied not only on previous studies, but on information gleaned from tourists’ photos, hunters and farmers.

“The motivation was to have an independent assessment with new information from a variety of sources that are not often represented in these species assessments,” said Florian Weise, a lead author of the recent study published in PeerJ and a researcher with the Claws Conservancy and the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative.

The cheetah is one of the most endangered large carnivores, Weise said, and southern Africa has the largest free-ranging cheetah population in the world. However, other large carnivores such as lions (Panthera leo) mostly occur in protected areas.

“Cheetahs are the exact opposite,” he said.

In their assessment, the team found that 82 percent of the cheetah’s range in southern Africa is on farmlands outside of protected areas, likely because strong hyena (Crocuta crocuta) and lion population on those protected lands are limiting cheetah numbers and stealing their kills.

Weise, co-lead author Varsha Vijay of Duke University and their 15 collaborators, combed through cheetah photos posted on Facebook, Twitter, Google Earth, game reserve blogs and travel sites looking for evidence that cheetahs were present between 2010 and 2016 in four countries — Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe. They also included information collected from over 60 studies.

The team estimated about 3,577 adult cheetahs in the area — 11 percent less than the current assessment by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which supports uplisting the cheetah as endangered rather than vulnerable.

“The IUCN is showing for decades, numbers are declining throughout Africa,” Weise said. “We’re using our independent information to say yes, the recent call to change status from vulnerable to endangered is warranted based on the available information.”

But because the cheetahs remain primarily on unprotected lands, Weise said, their conservation will rely on farmer support.

“Farmers are the future of cheetahs, not their enemy,” Weise said.

Header Image: A female cheetah uses a high vantage point to look for potential prey. ©Stéphanie Périquet