Cheetahs have had a long standing relationship with humans, mainly because of their regal and timid nature. In Ancient Egypt they were kept as pets as their elegance was often associated with royalty, whilst in India they were used by people as ‘hunting dogs’ to hunt buck for human consumption.
However, it is their timid nature and regal beauty that has, amongst many other threats, also led to their demise. Today cheetahs, both alive and dead, are sought after especially in the Middle East where cheetahs are still associated with wealth and status. Unfortunately this means that there is noteworthy illegal trade in cheetahs which is a serious threat.
In the last 100 years the global cheetah population has plummeted. In the early 1900’s, 100,000 cheetahs roamed the Earth – now there are only 10,000 – a 90% decrease! Extinct in 20 countries, cheetahs now only occupy 17% of their historic range. While cheetahs are still found in Iran and across Africa, the remaining populations that are of global importance are in Southern Africa (namely Botswana, Namibia and South Africa) and East Africa (Kenya and Tanzania). Of these countries, the least is known about the cheetahs in Kenya.
Within Kenya, the Masai Mara is believed to hold a critical population as it is part of the much larger Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. The Masai Mara is renowned for its annual wildebeest migration and high densities of predators but, like many ecosystems around the world, it is an ecosystem that is under increasing anthropogenic pressure.
Kenya’s population is now over 39 million, three times what it was in 1970. In and around the Masai Mara both tourists and settlements
have increased dramatically in the last decades. Due to this increased human pressure, there is grave concern that the cheetah population in the Masai Mara is declining.
Realising the fate of cheetahs and the importance of this ecosystem for the future of cheetahs, the Kenya Wildlife Trust, a local organisation, established the Mara Cheetah Project. The Mara Cheetah Project is a long-term project with the aim to establish the number of cheetahs in the Mara, to identify the threats that these majestic creatures face in this ecosystem and, where possible, to find ways to mitigate these threats. To achieve this, the Mara Cheetah Project is using a research-driven conservation approach through a combination of long-term population monitoring, ecological research and community-based conservation.
Like other cheetah populations throughout Africa and Iran, cheetahs in the Mara face a kaleidoscope of threats. As the human population continues to grow, pressures caused by human activity are increasing at an alarmingly rapid rate. Cheetahs have large home-ranges – often females can cover an area of up to 1200 square kilometres and are therefore 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 Masai Mara National Reserve 12.5% of the cheetah population has been diagnosed with sarcoptic mange, a skin disease caused by the Sarcoptes mite that is similar to human scabies.
Infected individuals often suffer from reduced body condition which in turn could lead to other factors such as lower hunting success, lower fecundity and increased vulnerability to predation. When severe, mange can lead to mortality. The threat of disease could also be amplified by stress. While there are natural factors that can increase stress levels, such as predation risk, competition and social circumstances, there are also many anthropogenic factors that can elevate stress levels in animals including mechanised vehicles, livestock and rowdy tourists.
Elevated stress levels can in some cases be a conservation concern as it can have severe consequences on behaviour and reproductive success. In addition, chronic stress may increase an animal’s susceptibility to disease by reducing their immunity. Therefore, it is always important to respect a cheetah’s personal space when at a sighting. To help understand and mitigate some of these threats, the Mara Cheetah Project team is out and about on a daily basis to collect data on cheetahs. So how does the project go about keeping track of cheetahs? Like the human finger-print, each cheetah has a unique spot pattern which is used to identify individuals.
By identifying individuals the team can effectively and efficiently monitor the cheetah population in the Mara allowing them 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. Together with the Kenya Wildlife Service and Smithsonian Institute (USA) these samples are being analysed to tackle some of these pressing conservation issues.
In addition to the research activities, education, community involvement and capacity building are central to our conservation efforts in the Mara. Some of our outreach projects include, but are not limited to, 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 production and screening a film on predators for community discussions on human-wildlife conflict. The hope is that by building understanding and tolerance that there is a chance that cheetahs and humans can continue to co-exist in this magnificent ecosystem.
Want to help cheetah conservation in the Mara? Here are some simple ways in which you can help make a difference:
• When you are visiting the Mara, respect the cheetahs. Keep a distance of more than 25m from the cheetah, keep noise levels to a minimum and do not let any cheetahs jump onto your vehicle.
• Report a cheetah sighting either through our Android app called Spot-a-Cat (available on Google Play) or by filling in a sighting form on our website (www.maracheetahs.org)
• Report any sick cheetahs or cheetahs behaving strangely to email@example.com
• Make a donation – more information available on our website
For more information about the Mara Cheetah Project and the cheetahs in the Mara, visit our website (www.maracheetahs.org) or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.