Speed alone can't save the cheetah
About 10,000 roam the wilds of Africa. Conservation programs are coordinating efforts to boost that number.
Mokolodi, Botswana — Duma does not run when Brian Jones opens the gate. Rather, he ambles lazily, casting a bored glance at his sister, Letoatse.
"Hi, Duma!" Mr. Jones coos, and Duma pads a little closer – although never making eye contact – and stretches, plopping down next to a thorn tree. Jones scratches him behind one tan ear, and Duma purrs.
"You can pet him," Jones says. "But we don't let kids go in here. He seems to take an overactive interest in young people."
This, in fact, is one of the key lessons Duma and Letoatse can impart from this acres-wide enclosure in Botswana's Mokolodi Nature Reserve, says Jones: Cheetahs, some of the world's most endangered cats, are going to act like the predators they are. But if humans understand that, and respond accordingly, there doesn't have to be conflict.
"A lot of people consider the cheetah a pest," says Jones, a long-term volunteer with the Cheetah Conservation Botswana program, a four-year-old group formed to help the beleaguered species. "If a village loses livestock, and they see a cheetah, they'll kill it. We're trying to change the mind-set."
Many environmentalists say cheetahs, the oldest of Africa's big cats and the fastest land mammal on earth, are in danger of extinction. The cheetah population has dropped by about 90 percent over the past century, in large part because of habitat destruction and conflict with farmers, who say they shoot the cats to protect their livestock. Today, some 10,000 cheetahs live in Africa – about half in Botswana and Namibia. A handful also live in Iran.
But advocates for the species say they believe they have a real opportunity to slow – and in some places even reverse – the cheetah's decline. Over the past decade, the number of cheetah conservation organizations has expanded, and the groups have increasingly coordinated their efforts. They say more people seem to be taking note of the cheetah's precarious situation – in the United States and Europe, for sure, but more important, in the handful of countries where cheetahs still live in the wild.
"We've seen a lot of shifts in attitudes in Namibia as well as in Kenya where we've worked so extensively," says Laurie Marker, founder of Namibia's 18-year-old Cheetah Conservation Foundation. "We've seen a lot of wake-up attitudes in South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, and even changes in North Africa and Iran."
Relief for the cheetah would send hopeful signs about the state of some of the world's last true wildernesses, conservationists say. But the cat is by no means out of harm's way, they say.
"If there's pressure on an ecosystem, they're the first you're going to see it with," says Charles Knowles, the executive director of the Wildlife Conservation Network, which funds conservation entrepreneurs and groups. "Cheetahs serve as a good indicator species for predators in an ecosystem. If you can make it healthy for a cheetah, you're going to make it healthy for everyone."
Fast hunters lack versatility
A close look at Duma shows what makes the cheetah so unusual for the cat world.
On the one hand, he's unmistakably feline, with the purring, the big eyes, the twitching tail. But then, he's not exactly regal. He's got long, skinny legs; a lanky, spotted body; and a head that is rather flat and small. A little awkward, if you want to be honest about it. And if you get close enough to his paws, you see that he doesn't have the retractable claws of other cats.
All of those physical characteristics have one purpose: speed. The cheetah's one and only hunting trick is that it's faster than anything it might want to eat, running up to 70 miles per hour. This means an antelope doesn't stand a chance in a race – but it also means that the cheetah is particularly vulnerable to injury.
"It could literally sprain an ankle and it would die," says Mr. Knowles. That's opposed to, say, a leopard, which will just adjust its hunting style to compensate for even a missing limb. (It will drop out of a tree on unsuspecting prey.)
This reliance on speed and not much else means that cheetahs don't have the tools to fight off other predators who want to steal their dinner. Even an unarmed human can walk up to a cheetah and take away its catch. The cats also have trouble protecting their babies – lions in particular are known to kill cheetah cubs as a way of eliminating bush rivalry. This is one of the reasons why cheetahs don't do well in wildlife reserves, where limited space increases competition among predators.
To avoid these run-ins, the cheetah hunts during the day – the only cat to do so. But daytime hunting has its own perils: humans. When livestock goes missing, farmers are more likely to see a cheetah on the prowl than any other cat. So while cheetahs are certainly responsible for taking their share of unattended goats, they also often get blamed – and killed – for other cats' hunting.
"When there is a dead whatever, the first reaction is to say 'A cheetah got it,' " Jones says. "Then retaliatory killings take place."
Duma shows this story, too. He and his sister were rescued as cubs after a farmer shot and killed their mother.
An effort to educate
One of the main goals of southern Africa's cheetah conservation groups is to persuade farmers to use nonlethal predator control – using herd guard dogs to scare off cheetahs, for instance, or building cheetahproof fences around grazing fields. This goes hand in hand with convincing locals that there is value in the cheetah, both environmental and economic.
In Namibia, for instance, where the cheetah population has stabilized and even grown, Ms. Marker's Cheetah Conservation Fund has held training courses for thousands of schoolchildren and hundreds of subsistence farmers, talking about ecosystem stability, the role of predators, and the unique aspects of the cheetah.
Across the border, Cheetah Conservation Botswana recently published a book called "Cheetah: A predator resource for the children of Botswana," which it hopes to distribute to every secondary school in the country. It has also held teacher training sessions modeled on Marker's program and launched a conservation video, "Spirit of the Kalahari," starring local actors.
"We deal with an integrated system of people learning to live with wildlife, predators," Marker says. "We study the needs of the people, and the predators."
More than three decades of biological research underlie these outreach efforts, Marker adds – work on everything from how many cheetah exist in a region to the cats' range and breeding patterns.
"We probably know more about the biology of the cheetah than most other endangered species," Marker says.
Conservation groups also research farming practices, such as corralling young calves, which can minimize human-cat conflict.
While conservationists say they are seeing attitudes shift, they also know they have a long road ahead.
This past year, two orphaned cheetah cubs that Cheetah Conservation Botswana had rehabilitated were shot and killed after they were reintroduced into the wild. The group had released them on property owned by a supportive farmer, but the cats had roamed onto other, less friendly land.
"It's going to be a generational thing," Jones says. "The predator-livestock issue won't be solved in our lifetime. It will be changed in the next three, four generations."