Making up lost ground:
Re-introducing the cheetah in South Africa.

Luke Hunter

There is an exciting conservation trend happening in South Africa. Since the country’s new dispensation, the huge surge in ecotourism has seen an increasing pattern emerge where former farmlands are being reclaimed for wildlife. Projects attempting to re-establish threatened species are proliferating and large carnivores are increasingly the object of these efforts. Since 1992, I’ve been working on one of the largest undertakings to reintroduce large cats to areas of their former range in South Africa, and one of the species I’ve been focusing on is the cheetah.

My research has been taking place at the Phinda Resource Reserve, a small park of 180km2 on the beautiful Maputaland floodplain 120 kms south of the Mozambique border. Between 1992-3, Phinda reintroduced 15 cheetahs, most of them caught on Namibian farmlands where they conflict with livestock owners and are heavily persecuted. Having made the 2000km trip to Phinda, all our cheetahs spent up to 8 weeks in a large outdoor enclosure to acclimate them to their new home. Large carnivores are notorious for having a strongly developed homing instinct and after the trauma of being shifted from their home range, they often attempt to head home. The period of captivity prior to being released seems to be vital in settling them into the new area and we had no experience of cats trying to return to where they were a problem in the first place. We also found a surprising bonus to housing animals together. All the males we kept together quickly formed strong bonds, even though they were unrelated and had come from hundreds of kilometres apart in their native Namibia. These affinities lasted for life after we released them and they behaved in every way like they had grown up together- playing, grooming one another and, hunting and feeding as amicable partners. In the wild, groups of males- usually brothers- may stay together for life. In a reintroduction scenario, it seems that even if they are not related, males team up quickly once introduced to one another. This is an useful discovery as single males are most often the "problem" animals caught in Namibia and with a brief period of captivity prior to their release, we’re able to "create" coalitions which probably have an increased chance of survival when we reintroduce them.

But what happens when the day for release finally arrives? Our newly-bonded male coalitions quickly set about establishing small exclusive territories, something we did not expect as they came from vast ranges in Namibia where they are probably non-territorial. Perhaps at Phinda where the density of prey is very high, it profits them to establish ranges in the richest areas in the hope that female cheetahs will spend much of their time there. Holding territories is a serious business and twice I saw single males killed in clashes when they wandered into turf already occupied by a territorial pair: in both cases, the victorious cheetahs fed from their killed enemy, unusual behaviour which had not previously been well-documented (National Geographic June 1997 has a photograph of this). In marked contrast to the behaviour of males, the females -who are unusual among cats in that they do not appear to establish territories- wandered throughout the whole of Phinda. So, although they may meet other females in their nomadic movements, they have little interest in each other and pass by without hostility. Of course when a female moves into a male’s territory, she receives plenty of attention and it wasn’t long before the first cubs were born at Phinda, a litter of three which arrived in late 1992. Cheetahs are rapid breeders and over 40 cubs have been born at the reserve since then. In the low density of other predators which kill so many youngsters in other reserves such as the Serengeti, over 60% of the youngsters are surviving to adulthood.

This is an encouraging sign for the cheetahs at Phinda. Lions have also been reintroduced and are beginning to take their toll as their numbers increase. Interestingly, it doesn’t appear that cubs are the main victims as is usually the case in other protected areas. On the open plains of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, cheetah researcher Karen Laurenson found that over 75% of cubs may be killed by lions. At Phinda, although I often saw mother cheetahs with cubs encounter lions, the thick bush seems to favour cub survival. During these interactions, the cubs scatter and while the mother distracts the lions, they find hiding places. Despite searching for them sometimes for up to an hour, I never saw lions find cubs. However, while the denser vegetation may assist cubs, it seems to carry a higher cost for adult cheetahs. A healthy adult is rarely caught unawares by other predators on the wide open savannah where visibility is great and cheetahs have plenty of space to escape an attack. But in closed bush, lions seem to have the upper hand and I saw them catch and kill 3 different adult cheetahs. Interestingly, all of them were males: perhaps they are not as vigilant as females with cubs and are more easily surprised.

Despite these losses, the signs are encouraging that reintroducing cheetahs can work. Cheetahs are often thought of as being very specialised cats sensitive to change but experience from Phinda suggests they are more adaptable than we think. They settled in very quickly, established home ranges and bred rapidly. However, with the immediate problems of introduction behind them, there are further, long-term threats to the project. Phinda is only 180km2 which is very little for large carnivores which require large spaces. Luckily, Phinda is not a conservation island. Negotiations are underway between the park, private landowners and government conservation agencies to secure more land and consolidate with other protected areas in the region. As part of this scheme, further introductions of cheetahs are planned which will address another fundamental problem facing small populations- the threat of inbreeding. In anticipation of this problem, Phinda has already exchanged two males born at the reserve with Madikwe Game Reserve for two unrelated males. Madikwe, located in the northern province of South Africa on the Botswana border, has initiated its own cheetah re-introduction program: the 2 Phinda brothers are amongst the first cheetahs to be released there.

While it may be premature, to say that cheetahs are definitely re-established for good at Phinda, I think the project has been a success on many levels. The species once again has a foothold in the region and we have learned much about their biology which will help make other reintroduction projects a success. Additionally, Phinda has illustrated that eco-tourism can be a profitable and successful way to use land and people in the region are now viewing wildlife with greater tolerance. Phinda is also one of the finest reserves in Africa to see cheetahs and many visitors come there specifically to enjoy unsurpassed viewing. Hopefully, this is only just the beginning and as projects like Phinda proliferate, this beautiful cat will gradually reclaim areas from which it has long been missing.

Copyright © 1997, Luke Hunter. All Rights Reserved.

Copyright © vanAnnies. All rights reserved.