A holistic conservation approach is needed to save these big cats, writes Shaun Smillie.
The world’s fastest cat is in trouble as it races towards extinction, but it might have an unlikely lifeline in 60 kilogrammes of pure mutt.
Anatolian shepherd dogs may not like cheetahs (in fact they hate them), but they are one of the best defences the cat has against its biggest predator – man.
Across southern Africa, conservationists are trying to persuade farmers to adopt this ancient breed of dog, this as a new study reveals that wild cheetah populations have fallen to just 7100 individuals and its range has dwindled by 91percent.
In late December the study, that appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed the first scientific census of cheetah populations across the globe.
The report, commissioned by the Zoological Society of London Panthera and Wildlife Conservation Society, has shocked conservationists.
The scientists found that Asiatic cheetah populations had been hardest hit, with fewer than 50 individuals remaining in an isolated pocket in Iran.
“This study represents the most comprehensive analysis of cheetah status to date.
“Given the secretive nature of this elusive cat, it has been difficult to gather hard information on the species, leading to its plight being overlooked,” Dr Sarah Durant, the lead author in the study, said in a statement.
“Our findings show that the large space requirements for cheetah, coupled with the complex range of threats faced by the species in the wild, mean that it is likely to be much more vulnerable to extinction than was previously thought.”
Previously, estimates of how many cheetah remained in the wild were guestimates.
Even protected areas aren’t enough to save the cat – research has found that it is one of the world’s widest-ranging carnivores and that 77 percent of the cheetah’s habitat falls outside of conservation zones.
Dwindling habitat means cheetahs are increasingly coming into contact with humans and preying on livestock.
The positive of this study, say conservationists, is that with more data on cheetah populations and the threats they face, it is now easier to work on and set up strategies that can stop their decline.
To prevent cheetahs from attacking livestock, the authors of the study suggest using dogs.
“What we have here is a simple answer, to an age old solution, that has been around for thousands of years,” explained Deon Cilliers, who is part of Cheetah Outreach’s livestock guarding dog programme and was an author in the study.
He said that other methods of controlling predators, such as relocating them, simply don’t work.
Anatolian shepherds are unique in that they become one of the flock that they protect 24/7.
Across South Africa these dogs are guarding goats, sheep and cattle, and according to Cilliers, they are so good that they generally reduce the number of livestock killed by predators by between 97-100percent.
Research has shown that cheetahs are easily driven off by such dogs and resort to feeding on wildlife instead.
Farmers are then less inclined to hunt them.
The breed originates from Turkey, and it is said that these dogs have been used to guard livestock for at least 6 000 years.
In Europe, they don’t tangle with big cats but usually face off with bears and wolves.
Other breeds are also used, including the Maluti, a dog that is used to guard livestock in Lesotho.
Cilliers prefers using the Anatolian, because of its bigger size. Their relation with the flock or herd they will protect begins at an early age. At just 6 weeks old they are introduced to livestock.
The idea is that they become imprinted on the flock but still interact with humans. The farmer comes and feeds the dog on a daily basis, and sees that it is okay.
Sometimes as many as five dogs are used to protect a big flock. Since 2005 Cilliers’s programme has placed more than 250 dogs. In that time some of the dogs have exhibited incredible bravery and have shown they have no problems in taking on a big cat.
“Some of these dogs have stories straight out of Days of our Lives,” said Cilliers.
One dog named Eno took on a leopard and won, with a little help from an exploding radio battery. Eno was guarding a herd of Nguni cattle near Baltimore in Limpopo, when his owner realised something was wrong. He couldn’t get a signal from Eno’s radio transmitter collar.
When the farmer found Eno, he discovered that his dog was okay, but that the transmitter wasn’t working. Closer inspection revealed a blackened transmitter and puncture marks left by the fangs of a leopard.
What had happened is that the leopard appeared to have grabbed Eno by the throat, but when it bit into the battery, the device exploded. This spooked the leopard and saved Eno’s life.
None of the Nguni cattle that Eno was protecting were found to be missing.
Cilliers said that the biggest problem he has in introducing livestock guarding dogs is in changing the perceptions of farmers.
“There is a culture among farmers that it’s easier to get rid of something – that the only good caracal is a dead caracal. This is what we are trying to change.”
It’s not just livestock that dogs are protecting – currently there are trials under way where the dogs are being used to protect game.
These dogs move with herds of antelope, like impala. The reason for this trial, explained Cilliers, are the increasing value of some game species.
Colour variant species such as black springbok and golden wildebeest command high prices and are sought after by hunters.
As with livestock, the concern is that these animals fall pray to predators.
So far, he said, the dogs have preformed well in protecting wildlife.
No one knows for certain just how many cheetah there are in South Africa.
“There is believed to be between 200 and 600 in the Kruger National Park, and on private farm land anything between 500 and 1000,” said Cilliers.
In South Africa, one of the main threats facing cheetahs is the illegal export of these animals to the Middle East and Europe.
There they are often kept as exotic pets.
Later this year there are plans to start a detailed census of cheetah numbers in South Africa.
It will be a difficult task, believes Cilliers.
They will be talking to farmers to get a handle on cheetah numbers on farms.
DNA collected from faeces could also be used in the census to tally cheetahs.
What is known is that South Africa is fairing better than its neighbour Zimbabwe where the cheetah population has fallen from 1 200 to about 170 animals in just 16 years.
This represents a loss of 85 percent of Zimbabwe’s cheetahs.
The scientists who conducted the National Academy of Sciences study believe that to save the fastest land animal, they need a holistic conservation approach.
These include incentivising the protection of cheetah by local communities, and governments.
They want conservation efforts to be introduced that transcend international borders and are more co-ordinated among various authorities.
“We’ve just hit the reset button in our understanding of how close cheetahs are to extinction.
“The take away from this pinnacle study is that securing protected areas alone is not enough.
“We must think bigger, conserving across the mosaic of protected and unprotected landscapes that these far-ranging cats inhabit, if we are to avert the otherwise certain loss of the cheetah forever,” said Panthera’s Cheetah Program Director, Dr Kim Young-Overton, whose organisation was involved in the study.
For a start, the study’s authors want the species to be “up-listed from “Vulnerable” to “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
But putting a price on a cheetah, is a problem, said Cilliers.
“An impala has a value of between R1 500 and R2 000 for a farmer, but a cheetah has no value. That is the challenge, farmers need to see a benefit.”