Researcher: Dr. Esther van der Meer
Region: wange National Park, Zimbabwe
Surveying the unknown: Determining cheetah presence, connectivity and levels of human-cheetah conflict in north-west Zimbabwe.
There are ± 9 500 adult cheetah left in the wild, of which 6 000 are part of a shared population between Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Although the Zimbabwean cheetah form an important part of this population to date, reliable information on their status is lacking. Especially from the north-west of Zimbabwe, an area encompassing most of Zimbabwe’s protected wildlife areas and an important part of the KAZA Transfrontier Conservation Area, little is known.
The Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority has, in conjunction with the regional conservation strategy, put a national conservation strategy for cheetah on paper. In order to meet the identified objectives, however, more information on cheetah is needed.
We will start by conducting a comprehensive survey in the north-west of Zimbabwe to gain a better understanding of cheetah distribution, the levels of human-cheetah conflict, corridor use and the potential for transboundary movement. Apart from this study we will collect information on cheetah occurrence from other parts of the country through collaboration with other organisations and a countrywide campaign to collect sightings and pictures, with which we will develop a National ID database. This database will help to identify individual cheetah and their life histories in order to give reliable population estimates. The knowledge gained from this study will enable us to advise the local authorities on the implementation and improvement of the conservation strategy of cheetah in Zimbabwe and identify conservation ‘hot spots’ where there is a need to implement conservation, research and educational projects.
The overall aim of the proposed project is to help to improve the national and regional conservation strategy of cheetah by collecting information on cheetah occurrence and their conservation needs in Zimbabwe, and to create a sense of ownership and responsibility for cheetah in the country by raising awareness and encouraging people to participate in the collection of cheetah data.
Our survey will focus on the complex of protected areas along the Zambezi river (of which a large part will be part of the KAZA Transfrontier Conservation Area), starting from Hwange National Park via Matetsi through Chizarira, Matusadona all the way up to Mana Pools.
- To fill the knowledge gap on the occurrence and potential conservation threats of cheetah in Zimbabwe by collecting information on the conservation biology of cheetah.Activities: survey, collection of sightings and pictures via awareness campaign, collaboration with other organisations that are in a position to collect data.
- To improve the conservation strategy of cheetah by using this knowledge to help and implement the National Conservation Strategy and advise the authorities on how to improve this conservation strategy.
- Activities: write a report presenting the collected data, lobby the relevant authorities, and participate in both national and regional conservation planning workshops.
- Identifying conservation hot spots where there is a need to implement conservation / research / education projects. Activities: analyse the collected data to identify hot spots.
- To promote collaboration between national organisations and key individuals and facilitate the sharing of information on cheetah in Zimbabwe through a Cheetah Conservation Network.Activities: meet and set up collaborations with other organisation and key individuals.
- To promote the co-existence of humans and cheetah by creating awareness on cheetah, their conservation threats and on how to reduce cheetah-human conflict. Activities: hand out a cheetah information package while conducting the survey; identify areas with high levels of conflict for future education programmes.
- To develop capacity to facilitate cheetah conservation in Zimbabwe. Activities: engage local students in BSc/MSc/PhD projects related to cheetah conservation.
Field Interview Assessment
Interviewing people locally has been found to be one of the most effective indirect methods to determine the presence/absence of cheetah, and has been used extensively throughout cheetah ranges. The aim is to interview National Parks staff, Forestry Commission staff, researchers, guides, hunters, spokespersons within local communities and other relevant parties. Field interviews will be conducted based on the method as described by Gros (1998; 2002), and after consultation with other conservation organisations within cheetah range who have used this method, to ensure that comparison of results will be possible, e.g. the Dambari Wildlife Trust.
To ascertain that the respondents know how to differentiate cheetah from leopard and serval, they will be asked to name species on a montage of carnivore pictures created for the purpose. The respondent will then be asked to report all specifics of cheetah sightings. Respondents that have stayed in the area for more than 10 years will be asked whether they think the cheetah population in the area has increased, remained the same or decreased.
In the field, these records of sightings will be mapped on detailed maps of north-west Zimbabwe, after which locations will be entered in ArcGIS©. Apart from sighting information, will also be collected on whether human-cheetah conflict occurs in the area by collecting conflict reports from the National Parks and Forestry field stations and directly asking respondents whether they have ever experienced such conflict in their area.
Sightings and Pictures
In order to collect sightings and pictures, we will distribute posters accompanied by sighting sheets to the National Parks office, Forestry offices, lodges, research stations etc. We will contact the members of various organisations, e.g. the hunters and guides association (SOAZ), Wildlife and Environment Zimbabwe (WEZ), by email and send them background information and a sighting form. On the website, there will be an option to upload sightings and pictures. We will provide people who are on the ground and see cheetah on a regular basis with a cheetah sighting booklet that can be carried in the field to collect sightings; these booklets will be collected at the end of the year. The pictures and sightings will be collected and entered in an ID database. Based on the cheetahs’ individual coat patterns we will be able to identify individuals and link sightings to individuals.
It is important to be able to give reliable estimates of cheetah densities. We have carried out a pilot project in Hwange National Park where we collected more than 500 pictures from 61 different sightings; after identification based on coat patterns we found that these pictures and sightings accumulated to nine adult cheetah and five cubs.
Assessing corridor use and the potential for transboundary movement
We will use the point location data in conjunction with Google Earth to carry out an assessment of where corridors allowing dispersal exist and where there is a potential for transboundary movement. This analysis will also allow an assessment of which corridors are most under threat from human activity, and where conservation efforts should be focused in future.
The collected data will result in a report that will be presented to the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority and other relevant stakeholders, e.g. the lead coordinator of the range-wide programme for African wild dog and cheetah conservation. The results of this study are likely to be incorporated in both the national and regional conservation strategy of cheetah.
Since the beginning of the year, we have collected 48 additional sightings and 304 pictures. This has enabled us to identify two more cheetahs in Hwange National Park and two more in Malilangwe. The total number of identified cheetahs in our data base is now 37.
For the full report, click here.
2012 has been a very interesting year for us and our Cheetah Conservation Project Zimbabwe. It is never easy to start a new project from scratch, after working in Zimbabwe for a conservation project for the past five years I knew what I would be getting ourselves into. You will have to put a feasible plan on paper, organise your paperwork and raise enough funding (which is difficult enough these days).
After receiving our research permit in March we applied for a work permit and focussed on fund raising. Bit by bit sponsors gave us their trust and awarded us grants. For the past five years it only took a couple of weeks to receive a research permit, but this year was different as it took seven months to receive it, but everything is now in order.
While waiting for the permits, I spent time in the Netherlands, and managed to establish a foundation to support our work in Zimbabwe. Some time was spent in Botswana and Namibia, a great exercise for networking amongst colleagues and fellow researchers. The time spent abroad was productive, but it did delay our work schedule for the year.
As we received the necessary permit at the end of September, we decided to spend the remainder of the year preparing for 2013. A lot of effort was put into questionnaires which we circulated amongst the surrounding villages, in order to give us a better understanding of the interactions resident people have with cheetah in the area.
This was an important aspect of building the foundations for our project, as the local people have become familiar with the project and have already started to submit photographs and important sighting information to us.
For the full report, click here.