In December 2017, a powerful coalition of three male cheetahs in the Pilanesberg National Park caused concern when they killed their own fathers. These Pilanesberg National Park cheetahs were removed from the reserve to prevent further infighting and inbreeding, and will now play a larger role in the future of cheetah conservation through the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s (EWT) Cheetah Metapopulation Project.
This project not only takes care of the introduction of these vulnerable predators into new reserves, animals are also exchanged to ensure the long-term genetic viability of cheetahs in small, fenced reserves.
The Pilanesberg National Park cheetahs have highly desirable genetics, so are sought after. “The Pilanesberg cheetah are unrelated to all other cheetah in the metapopulation because they colonized the reserve from neighboring farmland in 2012.” says Steve Dell, field ecologist at Pilanesberg.
Cheetah dynamics are not always straightforward. Litters generally consist of between one and six cheetahs while up to five at a time can be male. “Large male coalitions will kill single males or other smaller coalitions.” explains Vincent van der Merwe, Cheetah Metapopulation coordinator for the EWT. “Seven percent of cheetah mortalities in the metapopulation are attributed to cheetah on cheetah fighting.”
Non-profit organization Saving the Survivors assisted with darting the animals. After the capture, the three Pilanesberg cheetahs were split up. Two of them, together with a female from Rietvlei Nature Reserve, were relocated to Marakele National Park near Thabazimbi. The third male was paired with another male to form a new coalition in the Dinokeng Game Reserve near Pretoria. André Uys, group general manager at Marataba Conservation who drove the introduction process in Marakele, says two males and a female released in 2017 are doing well. “Since their release they have moved south into the SANParks section where they seem to have settled well.”
The newcomers should make a positive contribution by bringing new genetics into Marakele. The 90 000-hectare property can support a cheetah population of up to 15 individuals. Established in 2011, the metapopulation has grown from 217 cheetahs on 41 reserves to 332 on 53 reserves. Plans are underway to introduce them to other reserves in South Africa, Malawi and possibly Zambia within the next two years.