Counting on Cheetahs:
The Tsavo Cheetah Project
- Author: Sarah Czarnecki
- Publication Date: November 22, 2021
- Related Project: Tsavo Cheetah Project
- Focus Species:
There are fewer than 7,000 cheetahs in the wild, but that number is only a rough approximation.
We know that cheetah populations are on a steep decline, and in fact, it’s estimated that in the last 100 years their numbers have dropped by around 90%. These vulnerable big cats are subject to a broad range of threats to their population, so developing a viable conservation plan hinges on accurate counts. In conjunction with Felidae, The Tsavo Cheetah Project works to collect an updated, more accurate estimate of cheetah populations in a key region and help set a conservation strategy in motion.
The Tsavo Ecosystem is targeted as one of the highest priority cheetah research and conservation areas in the world. It comprises about 16,000 square miles of protected land in Kenya and part of Tanzania. This ecosystem includes Tsavo West and Tsavo East National Parks, which are the largest national parks in Kenya. This area is home to not only cheetahs, but caracals, African wildcats, leopards, and lions. Other animals include giraffes, hyenas, monkeys, rhinoceros, warthogs, zebras, elephants, and many other ecologically important species.
Cheetahs are most famous for being the fastest land animal on Earth, able to reach top speeds of 70mph. They can go from zero to 60 in under 3 seconds, which is on par with some of the fastest sports cars. They may be marvelously fast, but cheetahs are not great fighters. They're built for sprinting and rely on their excellent camouflage to get as close to their prey as possible. Cheetahs hunt during the daytime and don’t have strong jaws like other big cats, so they rely on ambush attacks from tall grass. Their amazing speed and great eyesight helps them hunt while those black tear marks under their eyes help reduce glare from the sun. With robust circulatory and pulmonary systems ready to burst into action at a moment’s notice, this sleek animal is custom-built for rapid strikes.
Despite being the most athletically impressive big cats, many people don’t realize how shy and non-aggressive cheetahs are. It’s very rare that cheetahs encounter humans or attack livestock, but they are at high risk of being killed out of retaliation or fear. In fact, it’s much more common that humans hunt cheetahs’ prey than the other way around. Aside from human-wildlife conflict and prey reduction, cheetahs are at risk of habitat loss and fragmentation, animal trafficking, and poaching. Aggressive tourism and human interaction frightens cheetahs away from their prey and their dens, further pushing them out of their natural habitats and into danger.
With so many threats to their survival, it can be difficult to determine where to begin with cheetah conservation. That’s why accurate tracking and territory estimation is crucial.
The Tsavo Cheetah Project is working hard to identify as many individual cheetahs as possible to get an updated population and demographic details. These numbers haven’t been updated in over 30 years, and even then it was not a direct assessment. In 1990, the average density method revealed about 440 cheetahs living in Tsavo National Parks, but the Project aims to get a more conclusive figure. It’s high time we conduct a new census. That way, we can study cheetahs more effectively and get a specialized conservation plan in action.
The Tsavo Cheetah Project’s method is three-fold. First, camera traps are set up to photograph and identify cheetahs in the region. Cheetahs’ 3,000-spot patterns are as unique as human fingerprints, so with modern imaging, we can identify individuals based on photos. Monitoring cheetah activity (that is, pawprints, trails, droppings, and sightings) will help the Project track the population’s movements.
After identifying cheetahs in the region, the Tsavo Cheetah Project communicates with the humans about sightings and conflicts. When presented with dead livestock, the Project assesses which predator was responsible. This is possible because each kind of predator has a unique way of biting, tearing, and scratching at their prey. Lion attacks look very different from cheetah attacks, for example. If cheetahs have been responsible for any livestock predation, camera traps are set up in the area.
Finally, The Tsavo Cheetah Project works on educating locals about peacefully coexisting with cheetahs. The program is geared toward both children and adults. When people are able to identify cheetahs as opposed to other big cats in the area, they can better appreciate their importance in the ecosystem and help boost their conservation.
Tracking cheetahs’ numbers, understanding threats to their population, and setting up a conservation strategy relies on accurate and recent figures. Armed with data, we can help develop a greater understanding and respect for supporting these majestic animals.
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