By Femke Broekhuis

The cheetah is well known for being the fastest land mammal on earth, but few people realise that it is also racing to extinction. This is often overshadowed by the plight of other threatened species such as elephants, rhinos, gorillas and lions.

In the early 1900s it was believed that around 100,000 cheetahs roamed the Earth, but in the past century the population has declined by more than 90 per cent. The most recent estimate by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) puts the figure at 6,600, which is considerably less than the current estimate of 360,000 African elephants and 35,000 African lions.

Rightfully so, both elephants and lions have received a lot of attention as populations have declined drastically because of poaching and conflict with people. Sadly it is a modern-day threat that many species face.

Cheetahs, for example, are prized as pets in the Middle-East. In order to meet this demand, cubs are often taken out of the wild as they are difficult to breed in captivity. When cheetah mothers hunt, they temporarily leave their young cubs unattended, leaving them vulnerable to human capture. Sadly the majority of cheetah cubs never reach their intended destination and die due to starvation and malnutrition.

While some people aspire to own a cheetah as a pet, others consider them pests as they kill sheep, goats and calves. But these are the obvious threats that are easy to capture in a photograph, a lion killed for killing someone’s cow, an elephant, dead, with half its face removed for its valuable tusks, starving cheetah cubs huddled together in a cage on its way to a new ‘owner’. These are the images that pull on people’s heartstrings.

Habitat loss

But what about the white elephant in the room? The reason why there is an increase in interactions between people and wildlife, which often results in the loss of wildlife? Increased human populations and competition for space. These are the less obvious threats, they are less tangible as they are not easy to capture in a photograph, but the threat, and its consequences, are just as real.

Habitat loss and fragmentation is forcing people and wildlife together increasing interactions and therefore conflict between the two. Other consequences include the depletion of wild prey for predators, increased risk of disease outbreaks (such as rabies in the endangered Ethiopian wolf) and less connectivity between populations which can cause inbreeding, resulting in a less diverse genetic pool. The threat of habitat loss is particularly detrimental to species, such as the cheetah, which tend to traverse over large areas. Because of these threats cheetahs now only occupy 17 per cent of their historic range and are extinct in 20 countries.

While cheetahs face a kaleidoscope of threats, there are several areas, especially in Southern and Eastern Africa, where there are still good populations of cheetahs and where there is still hope for them.

One of these areas is the Serengeti-Mara landscape, an important wildlife area that straddles the Kenyan-Tanzanian border east of Lake Victoria. Collectively this area is just under 20,000 km2 in size with the Mara only being about 3,000km2. Like the Serengeti, tourists from all around the world flock to the Masai Mara, not only to see the famous wildebeest migration, but also to see the abundance of other animals, especially predators such as the cheetah.

And while it is very likely that you will see a cheetah on a visit to the Mara, there is widespread concern that the cheetah population in this area is declining. If you speak to people from the community and guides that worked in the Mara in the 1990s you will hear stories of multiple cheetahs roaming the Aitong plains north of the Mara and the Loita plains towards the west.

The picture now is very different — increased human settlements and the proliferation of electric fences. So what is the status of cheetahs in the Masai Mara? Whilst there are a lot of anecdotes about cheetah numbers, until recently there were no accurate estimates of the cheetah population within the Masai Mara.

Counting an elusive species

One of the reasons is that it is difficult to assess numbers of elusive and wide-ranging species such as the cheetah, but new, robust analytical techniques are now available to overcome some of these challenges. One of these techniques, called a Spatially Explicit Capture-Recapture model, was recently used by the Mara Cheetah Project to estimate the number of cheetahs in the Maasai Mara.

The Mara Cheetah Project team, together with its partner project, the Mara Lion Project, have been monitoring the cheetahs (and lions) in the Masai Mara since mid-2013. The teams are on the ground collecting data all year around, but twice a year (once during the migration and once outside the migration) specific surveys are conducted throughout the area to collect data needed to estimate the numbers of cheetahs.

Each survey extends over a three-month period, which seems short, but this is to account for any births, deaths and movement in and out of the area to get an accurate snapshot of the population at any given time.

During this time the team tries to find as many cheetahs as possible and once a cheetah is found, the necessary information, including the identity of the cheetah which is determined by its unique spot pattern, are recorded. These data are then analysed using the Spatially Explicit Capture Recapture model, which incorporates information on when and where a cheetah was sighted and when and where the animal was subsequently re-sighted during the survey period.

The result from the first survey, which was conducted in 2014, estimates the cheetah density to be at around 1.28 adult cheetahs per 100km2. This roughly translates to 31 adults (not including individuals younger than 18 months) for an area that includes the Maasai Mara National Reserve, the Mara Triangle and some of the surrounding wildlife conservancies including Mara North, Lemek, Ol Churo, Olare-Motorogi, Naboisho and Ol Kinyei.

This number is about half of what people were expecting, which has obviously caused some concern. However, it is unlikely that the cheetah population has suddenly plummeted. Instead, there are several reasons why there is this discrepancy between the anecdotes and science.

One of them is that people do not realise that cheetahs traverse large areas. Cheetahs in Namibia, for example, have home-ranges (or the area that a cheetah resides in) of about 1,647 km2. This is bigger than the Masai Mara National Reserve and the Mara Triangle combined — and this is for one individual.  In other words, if a cheetah is seen in the northern part of the Masai Mara National Reserve and a few days later another cheetah is seen on the border with the Serengeti, it is often assumed that these are two different cheetahs but it may just be the same individual.

The model used to estimate the cheetah numbers avoids this sort of double counting by incorporating the identity of each cheetah which is made possible through the cheetah database that is put together by the project.

So whilst this number might seem low, it is higher than the estimates that are currently available for some of the other important cheetah strongholds. However, due to multiple threats that cheetahs face in this area, it is possible that cheetahs in the Mara are decreasing.

As such, the recent numbers that were estimated by the Mara Cheetah Project, and published in a scientific peer-reviewed journal, are an important baseline to determine trends going into the future and to help identify the threats that these felids are facing.

Future of Cheetahs in the Mara

So what is the future for cheetahs in the Maasai Mara? On a positive note, cheetahs in the Mara are not yet being targeted for the illegal pet trade and whilst cheetahs do kill people’s livestock, very few are killed in retaliation.

Therefore, one of the main threats is the loss of habitat through an increase in settlements and habitat fragmentation through the haphazard placement of settlements and fences. The creation of the wildlife conservancies around the Masai Mara National Reserve has definitely helped in creating more space for wildlife, but more is needed in the form of a spatial plan.

This is something that the Narok County Government is working on getting in place by February 2017 and they recently convened a meeting with various environmental groups to get this process going. And while some of these issues can only be tackled on a higher governmental level, there are many things that can be done on a local level.

For example, by improving herding practices i.e. by not allowing young children to herd livestock near wildlife areas or by improving the structure of Bomas, depredation can be minimized if not eradicated. And while it might not be a direct threat, high volumes of tourists that visit certain parts of the Maasai Mara are likely to have an impact on cheetahs. During the high tourist arrival season, there are often cases of too many vehicles (more than 60) at a single sighting. This may cause a cheetah to fail at a hunt, or to leave its kill because it is feeling stressed or separate mother and cubs.

Tourists and guides can avoid these sorts of situations by not overcrowding a sighting, keeping noise levels to a minimum and maintaining a respectful distance. In addition, people can help with cheetah monitoring either by sending photographs to sightings@maracheetahs.org or by using our in-house cheetah monitoring app (Spot-a-cat), which is available on Google Play (more information can be found on www.maracheetahs.org).

There is definitely hope for cheetahs and we can all play our part in trying to save this felid in peril.