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03 September 2019

The Cheetah Reintroduction Project in Namibia

Having been involved in a part of the cheetah reintroduction project in Central Namibia, YZ expert Will details why and how conservation of this species is being carried out.

The cheetah is arguably one of Africa’s most iconic species, conjuring images of dramatic high-speed chases across sweeping savannahs. Cheetahs hold the impressive record as the world’s fastest land mammal, capable of running at blistering speeds of up to 70 miles per hour. However, they are also fast disappearing from their historical range across Africa and parts of the Middle East.

It’s estimated that, within the last hundred years, the global population of wild cheetahs has reduced by almost 92 per cent due to unchecked hunting, illegal pet trading, habitat loss, and human–wildlife conflict. Now cheetahs inhabit only 10 per cent of their historical range and Namibia is home to the world’s largest wild population. Even today, habitat loss due to fragmentation of land into privately owned farms continues to drive wild cheetahs towards conflict with farmers.

cheetah6 conservation namibia yellow zebra safaris
cheetah5 conservation namibia yellow zebra safaris

The nature of cheetahs

Cheetahs are incredibly successful predators, with a kill success rate that’s almost double that of other big cats such as lions or leopards. In fact, it has been shown that, unlike other big cats who tend to take game sporadically and opportunistically as they patrol their territories, cheetahs will identify target populations that they can return to time and time again until the food source is depleted. In the wild, these target populations may take the form of calving herds of wildebeest, hartebeest, springbok, or impala, animals that have adapted to counter the threat from cheetah predation.

The human–cheetah conflict

When wild land is converted into commercial farmland, the cheetah’s traditional prey species are replaced with domesticated livestock that stand little chance against these highly adapted and specialised hunters. The attrition rate is high, and the farmers often have little choice other than to defend their livelihoods. Those animals that survive reprisals from farmers are often left orphaned or severely injured and consequently must go through a lengthy process of rehabilitation or “re-wilding” before they can be deemed suitable for reintroduction to the wild. For most big cats, prolonged periods of captivity would render the idea of reintroducing them back into the wild impossible.

How does reintroduction work?

Interrupting the natural learning process of animals such as lions or leopards can put these animals at a severe disadvantage when it comes to their ability to hunt, find water, or defend themselves from other predators. Remarkably, cheetahs have a very different learning process, as they are actively taught survival skills by their mothers from a very young age all the way to adulthood and subsequent independence. This makes the process of re-wilding much easier since they can be actively taught and effectively ‘trained’ to survive in the wild, even if they have been in captivity from a young age.

During their rehabilitation at the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), the animals would be bonded into larger groups, or ‘coalitions’, that would allow them to learn from the experience of other members of the coalition. In turn, this bonding process led to much higher survival rates among re-wilded cheetahs.

“During my time as a guide in Namibia, I was fortunate enough to work alongside conservation charities such as CCF in their efforts to reintroduce wild cheetahs into game reserves and conservation areas. My role was to liaise between the reserve that I worked on as a guide and CCF.”

Step one

First, it was important to assess the feasibility of releasing more predators onto the reserve. I did this by asking a few questions. Is there enough available prey? Are there already too many cheetahs or too much competition from other predators? Once the suitability of the area had been established and CCF had identified appropriate candidates for re-wilding, one of their reintroduction specialists would spend some time on the reserve looking for the optimal area in which to release the cheetahs. The key was to find an area that was close to abundant and topographically suitable hunting grounds, that had an ample water supply, and that was well away from areas with a high population density of lions, leopards, or hyenas.

Step two

The next step would be to bring the cheetahs to the reserve for release. This was the critical phase of the process and it was very important to make sure that the cats were finding water and at least attempting to hunt wild prey.

More often than not, their hunting instincts kicked in immediately and early attempts at hunting were met with a surprising degree of success.

Nonetheless, it was important to monitor their progress and from time to time the cats needed some encouragement with supplemental feeding – not so much that they were discouraged from hunting independently, but enough to keep their energy levels up.

Step three

The CCF specialist would remain on the reserve during this time (usually 2–3 weeks depending on how quickly the cats settled in). I would accompany them throughout their stay, spending hours each day assisting in navigating the reserve and acting as their personal protection in a wild and unfamiliar environment. The CCF reintroduction specialist had spent years with these animals preparing them for their new life in the wild, and entrusting them to me when they left was an occasion that was met with an equal measure of pride and sadness. From here on I would monitor the cats alone, feeding information back to CCF and slowly introducing them to the idea of being viewed by guests from vehicles and on foot.

The result of the cheetah reintroduction project

All in all, the project was a huge success; and in the 5 years that I spent monitoring and habituating CCF cheetahs, a total of 14 cats was released onto the reserve. If you’d like to learn more about cheetah conservation, you can witness the success of projects like this yourself during a safari to Namibia. Take a look at some ideas and inspiration below:

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