Aspects of cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) biology, ecology and conservation strategies on Namibian farmlands
In an increasingly human-dominated environment, the task of successfully conserving large carnivores, such as cheetahs, is difficult due to real or perceived threats resulting in conflict and often their local extirpation. This research describes the causes and potential solutions to this conflict in Namibia. Cheetah biology and ecology were studied through physical examination, laboratory analysis, radio-tracking and human perceptions using survey techniques. Between 1991 and 2000 data collected on over 400 live-captured and dead cheetahs showed that a perceived threat to livestock or game was the reason for 91.2% (n = 343) of cheetahs captured and 47.6% (n = 30) of wild cheetah deaths. Both were biased towards males, with 2.9 males being captured for every female, despite an apparent equality of sex ratio. Human-mediated mortality accounted for 79.4% (n = 50) of wild deaths reported, of which the majority involved prime adult animals, with a peak at around 5-6 years of age. Polymorphic microsatellite loci were used to assess 313 Namibian cheetahs' variation, gene flow, paternity and behavioural ecology. Genetic analysis showed limited regional differentiation supporting a panmictic population and that persistence in Namibia depends on dispersal from regions throughout the country; therefore efforts of connectivity throughout the country should continue. Relatedness values confirmed family groups, and 45 new potential sire/dam offspring and 7 sibling groups were identified, providing information on dispersal and the success of translocation. Sera from wild cheetah were assessed for exposure to feline and canine virus antibodies to CDV, FCoV/FTP, FHV1, FPV, and FCV; antibodies were detected in 24%, 29%, 12%, 48%, and 65%, respectively, showing infection occurs in wild cheetahs; although there was no evidence of disease at time of capture, these diseases are known to cause serious clinical disease in captive cheetahs. Neither FIV antibodies nor FeLV antigens were present in any wild cheetahs tested, however, the first case of FeLV in a non-domestic felid is described in a captive Namibian cheetah. Concern for contact with domestic animals is discussed. Focal Palatine Erosion (FPE), a dental abnormality found in captive cheetahs, was discovered in over 70% of the wild cheetahs and was correlated with dental malocclusions, and is of concern to the long-term health of wild cheetahs. Namibian cheetahs have a mean 95% kernel home range of 1642.3 km2 (+/- 1565.1 km2), the largest home ranges yet defined. Habitat type significantly affected the cheetah's spatial distribution and prey density. Radio-collared female cheetahs were more closely related to other cheetahs in the study area than males, indicating male dispersal. Continual cheetah perturbation may partially explain the unusually low density of cheetahs in this area (estimated at only 2.5 cheetahs per 1000km2) despite the apparent abundance of prey. Namibian farmers originally surveyed revealed a mean removal of 19 cheetahs per year/farm, even when not considered a problem, and higher removals occurred on game farms. Evidence for actual livestock depredation was negligible, only 3% of reported captures. Scat analysis revealed cheetahs' selection for indigenous game, however 5% of scats contained evidence of livestock. Research conducted on methods of conflict resolution showed that placing Anatolian Shepherd livestock guarding dogs proved to be effective, with 76% of farmers reporting a large decline in livestock losses since acquiring an Anatolian. Such solutions appear effective in increasing farmer's tolerance for cheetahs, and by the end of the study period cheetah removals dropped to a mean of 2.1 cheetahs/farm/year. Implementing strategies such as these could be significant for reducing human-carnivore conflict in the many other places in which it occurs.