A new mix of genes in the ‘pool’

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South Africa’s cheetah population is on the rise thanks to a collective effort to maximise genetic diversity. Up until 1965, cheetah were regarded as vermin in South Africa. Despite declining numbers, free-roaming individuals were killed by farmers who suffered animal stock losses.

When farmers began to shift from cattle to wildlife ranching, and cheetah-farmer conflict escalated to a state of serious concern, a programme was instituted to relocate them to reserves.

By 2009 a total of 157 cheetah had been removed from the free-roaming population and introduced to 37 fenced reserves throughout South Africa.

While the programme aimed to protect the cheetah, it reduced the population’s overall genetic diversity by limiting migration and gene flow. In addition, the introduction of predator-naïve cheetah to lion-dense reserves, the sale of cheetah into captivity, single sex introductions, and excessive contraception programmes all contributed towards the decline.

It became evident that the cheetah reintroduction plan required refinement.

In 2011 the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) launched the Cheetah Metapopulation Project to facilitate a coordinated management approach to cheetah reintroductions.

The programme relocates cheetah between fenced reserves, mimicking dispersal that would have naturally occurred had the landscape not been impacted by fences, farms and settlements.

Welgevonden Game Reserve started contributing towards the programme in 2014, relocating a total
of 11 cheetah individuals to various reserves, including Liwonde National Park in Malawi, and introducing four individuals to help promote genetic diversity within the Welgevonden population.

Earlier this year, a young male was captured and relocated to Samara Private Game Reserve.
Vincent van der Merwe, who heads the Cheetah Metapopulation Programme at EWT, collected the sub-adult from Welgevonden and took him to Samara.

“The swap is important for several reasons,” van der Merwe says. “For a start, relocations play a critical role in growing South Africa’s cheetah population and expanding its range.”

South Africa is one of the only countries in the world where cheetah numbers are on the increase. Since 2011 the South African cheetah metapopulation has grown from 217 individuals on 41 reserves to 357 individuals on 58 reserves.

With 7 100 cheetah remaining worldwide, forward-thinking management techniques, such as the EWT programme, and positive relationships between private game reserves, have become vital components of cheetah conservation.

 

Written and photos by Jessica Oosthuyse 

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