By Chérie Schroff
NAIROBI, Jan 11 – The Tsavo East National Park in southeast Kenya comprises an area of a 13,747 km² with a large variance in habitat. Although declared protected land by the government and managed by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), multiple species populations including the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) are declining.
Bordering the partially unfenced park to the southeast and southwest, reside local tribes and communities who rely upon livestock or agriculture farming for their subsistence. Conflict with predators often arises when unguarded livestock are grazed in wildlife habitat outside and even inside the park boundaries during the dry season.
A lack of knowledge has resulted in further deaths of cheetahs, which are often mistaken for the leopard or killed simply out of fear. Since late 2011, the long-term Tsavo Cheetah Project has been studying the population characteristics and conservation status of the cheetah in the Tsavo East National Park.
My Kenyan assistants and I began by interviewing local residents, park personnel and stakeholders about cheetah presence, behavior, and conflicts, while also recording cheetah and other predator spoor and direct sightings. Methodologies for monitoring population status and distribution are non-invasive, reflecting regulations in Kenya’s national parks. Direct sightings are supplemented by spoor tracking inside the park; data are gathered by myself as the Principal Investigator within known cheetah’s territories and with the support of regular tour guides.
Sighting and spoor locations are mapped for distribution and home range studies. In dense vegetation, infrared camera traps have been useful in confirming presence of predators and for identifying individuals through their spot patterns (Kelly et al., 1998, Bowland 1994). I share data with my research affiliate, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and other cheetah research bodies, thereby providing the larger cross-boundary information on populations in the Tsavo and northern Tanzania habitats.
To date, I have identified 66 individual cheetahs; an additional 13 observations remain uncertain due to the distances of the sightings. In 2018 field efforts will expand geographically to include Tsavo West National Park and more communities on the eastern periphery. The Tsavo Cheetah Project has commenced a camera trap study on cheetah movements across the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), in collaboration with KWS Tsavo East Researchers, who are monitoring elephants and larger mammals.
Inadequate fencing has allowed entry of small and medium-sized mammals, where steel gates, elephant damage and animal-dug holes allow for entry under the fences. In two known cases cheetahs have become stuck, meaning that the fencing is not fully wildlife proof or safe. One such case occurred in August when a male cheetah became trapped between the SGR fencing and had to be revived by the park veterinarian and subsequently relocated by into the park boundary. Other trapped animals may not be as fortunate. At specific locations from Voi to Bachuma Park gates (a 50-kilometre stretch) the restriction of cheetah movements between Tsavo East National Park and privately-owned livestock ranches has resulted in an increase in actual and perceived human-wildlife conflict and retaliation on cheetahs.
This appears to arise when cheetahs cannot cross safely back into the national park. We plan to monitor cheetah movements near this infrastructure, to observe if cheetahs are utilizing designated underpasses and culverts. Data obtained from trap cameras in these locations will be used to draw up management recommendations intended to ensure safe and assessable connectivity for cheetahs and other predator species in the connecting ecosystem.
This will include decisions made by the KWS and Kenyan Highway Patrol on placement of wildlife proof fencing, and speed bumps on the adjacent road. Through spoor tracking and direct sightings we have evidence to support cheetah movements across the railway and Mombasa Road onto private ranches. Seven known cheetahs from Tsavo East were confirmed on these ranches from 2015 to 2017. Three were killed on private livestock ranches, in 2016.
In late 2017, two camera traps were deployed in Tsavo East across from a single SGR corridor and Sagalla Ranch, six cheetah captures were obtained, primarily in the direction from the Park. The study will include corridors and culverts along the Voi–Bachuma and Voi–Mtito Andei SGR stretches, commencing in February 2018. We have documented a moderate to high number of cheetahs within the study area, although with a substantial threat of decline due to persecution by local residents and, less commonly, non-selective poaching with snares, and traffic deaths outside the park.
Interestingly, inside Tsavo East, most of the cubs who I have documented have survived into adulthood. This is in contrast to some other study areas where savanna grassland makes up the majority of vegetation. Tsavo with its strong biodiversity hosts varying habitats and cover, including many areas of dense bush. There is also a wide availability of small, large prey species for both the cheetah and larger carnivores. Cheetah and lions are found in the same habitats and locations, as is their spoor, on a regular basis by the project.
In some locations of mixed habitat, the spoor of the cheetah, lion, and leopard can often be seen clustered together. The Tsavo Cheetah Project seeks out credible reports on incidents of conflict and retaliatory killings, amongst other threats to the cheetah, with the assistance of our employed Maasai Cheetah Scouts. The hired Scouts, Simon and William, work as ‘informants’ to the project, given their large network with both the Maasai and neighboring multi-tribal communities.
It was through one of the Scouts that we initially learned of multiple retaliatory killings on a nearby ranch which we reported to KWS, investigated and followed-up on with the herders and management. My local assistant, the Scouts and I work on these ranchlands and settlements for investigations and solutions into human-predator conflict. Though the project is mainly focused on the cheetah, we are not biased to the other large cats, so often also work on cases of both leopard and lion conflict. We provide knowledge on the cheetah to residents, herders and landowners/management, when working with them on solutions to protect livestock and predators, leaving 3-4 handout sheets for their keeping.
We also have a programme for pupils in local schools known as A Tsavo Cheetah’s Ecosystem school-based education project in Taita-Taveta. By establishing programmes in both primary and secondary schools we return throughout the year for engaging, fun sessions with the students which entail educational films and presentations, student creations, such as poster making, drawings, poems, plays, and provide story book readings, coloring sheets and puppet show sessions, for the youngest students.
My aim with the sessions is to instill knowledge and lasting memories associated with the cheetah and other large cats within the Tsavo ecosystem. Many students bring their lessons home to their families sand neighbours, which has actually resulted in the decrease of livestock loss and survival of cheetahs and leopards, in these particular locations. We are conducting evaluations on the success of the programme every two months in each school to understand the short term and long term impacts of our sessions. Cheetahs are killed out of fear and misunderstanding. If we can replace these perceptions with factual knowledge and positivity associated with the species, we may be able to save the cheetahs of Tsavo.
Chérie Schroff is the Director and Principle Investigator of the Tsavo Cheetah Project, which she founded in 2011. She first came to Kenya as a student in 1992 for an internship with the School for Field Studies, where she studied the behavior and browsing heights of the Maasai
giraffe. Following graduation in the US, she worked on cheetah and predator projects in South
Africa before returning to Kenya in 2005 for a cheetah conservation workshop. She holds a degree in Animal Ecology from Iowa State University and a degree in Biology from Boston University.