Monday, May 28, 2007

Kenya: Cheetah on the fast track to extinction

A census of the cheetah population in Kenya in 2000 put the number somewhere between 500 and 1,000. But this population is declining fast, mainly due to human encroachment on their habitat, writes RUPI MANGAT

THE HILLS OF SALAMA ARE COVERED IN the cool white mist of a rainy morning. The road that cuts across the landscape is busy as usual, with huge trucks ferrying goods between the port of Mombasa and the interior. Over the years, Salama has grown from a tiny roadside village into an overcrowded hub. And in the midst of this, a most amazing discovery has been made — there are cheetahs around!

It’s not the best day for cheetah monitoring because of the rain, but in this case the cheetah in question has a radio collar fitted; once a week, the cheetah team drives through the vast lands of Salama, 120 kilometres southeast of Nairobi, to try and pick up the signals emitting from her radio collar even if they cannot spot her.

However, on this cold Friday, our first stop after picking up Lumumba Mutiso, the community officer with the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) in Salama, is one of the large ranches that has recently been subdivided. The ranch, measuring almost 20,000 acres, is where the cheetah population of Salama has survived until now.

Lumumba drives a short distance from Salama shopping centre before taking the turning into the ranch. It’s a beautiful landscape of hills and valleys, now verdant with the rains. Cows, sheep and goats graze contentedly on the succulent green grass, which otherwise in this semi arid region is coarse and brown.

This visit is, however, a tense one for the cheetah team – Mr Lumumba; Mary Wykstra, CCF’s Kenya programme officer and Wallace Isaboke from the East African Wildlife Society (EAWS) , who are collaborating with CCF.

Two goats have been killed and one injured the previous night. The landowner, a portly businessman who bought many of the plots, is not amused. The culprit seems to be a cheetah, and at this point it is unclear whether it is the radio-collared cheetah. “Niko na bunduki ndani ya gari. Nitamuuwa leo,” he says angrily. (“I’ve got a gun here in the car with me; I’m going to kill that thieving animal today!”)

ONE OF THE CARCASSES HAS BEEN skinned and is hanging in the enclosure. There’s no compensation from the government, in the form of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), who are the custodians of the wildlife, or CCF for the livestock lost to wildlife. The landowner is within his rights to kill wildlife on his land that are proving to be pests.

“There are an estimated 12,500 cheetahs in Africa today and 50 in Iran,” says Ms Wykstra. “In 1900, the population of cheetahs in Africa was 100,000, with cheetahs seen across Asia and Europe. Today, Iran is the only country outside Africa with a cheetah population. A count done in 2000 shows that Kenya has an estimated cheetah population of 500 to 1,000. Around Salama, there are an estimated 17 cheetahs.” The cheetah researcher, who has a degree in zoology and extensive experience studying animal behaviour and working in zoos designing animal enclosures, gives another, more depressing statistic – that of the countries where cheetahs have become extinct since 1940 – Jordan, Iraq, India (the country that gave the cat its name), Israel, Morocco, Syria, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Djibouti, Ghana, Nigeria, and Khazikstan as recently as 1989.

The cheetah is the fastest animal on earth and can achieve speeds of up to 114 kilometres per house when hunting. This cat is built for speed. Its streamlined body, lean muscular legs, a disproportionately massive chest to allow an increased intake of air and a tail that acts as a rudder to allow sharp turns at high speed make it an efficient hunter. But it is not strong. “Compared with the lion and the leopard, the cheetah is the weakest of the large cats and the poorest breeder,” continues Ms Wykstra. Even a big vulture can chase a cheetah from its kill.

THE CHEETAH CONSERVAtion Fund was started in 1991, with Dr Laurie Marker championing the cause of the cat in Namibia in Southern Africa. The goal of CCF is to ensure the survival of the cheetah in collaboration with stakeholders. “You cannot conserve without involving the people who have to live with the predators,” explains Wykstra. “Cheetah populations have been declining everywhere. What we are trying to do is to maintain what we have left. And one way forward is co-existence with the people who live with the predators.”

CCF made its entry into Kenya in December 2001. Working with the EAWLS and KWS, the team has travelled to the far reaches of the country to map the animals’ distribution. “What we are finding is that cheetah populations have declined, and even though they are not declining as rapidly as in the 1980s, their numbers are falling. There could be a number of reasons for that, like there not being a big market for the skins. But the number one factor is habitat loss,” says EAWLS’s Mr Isaboke. “We hope to finish the countrywide cheetah census by the end of the year,” he adds.

This is the first comprehensive cheetah national survey done in Kenya. The results of the survey will be presented to KWS and the government. “Cheetahs need large masses of land, and therefore the issue is looking at conserving large landscapes. In Namibia, the range of the cheetah is 1,200 square kilometres in commercial farmland. In Tanzania, the data shows 750 square kilometres.

HOWEVER, IN KENYA there has been no scientific monitoring to look at the exact home range size. The one confirmed size of a reasonably long studied cheetah is the Salama cheetah, which has a range of 200 square kilometres.”

“We have been monitoring this surprising female cheetah in Salama in Makueni district since 2005,” says Ms Wykstra. Surprising because Makueni is one of the most populated areas in Kenya, and the landscape is hilly and bushy, not typical flat-plains cheetah country.

“The Salama cheetah was caught in a trap after she killed a calf on a ranch,” says Ms Wykstra. By that time, she had been accused of killing about 100 goats and calves. She also had five half grown cubs with her. “The dilemma at that point was what to do with the cheetah and her cubs. One suggestion was to move her to a protected area where there aren’t many cheetahs. But we know from previous field work that that’s not a solution as cats keep to their old habits. It would have been a case of simply transferring the problem. “The next option was to fit her with a radio collar to find out to what degree she was the cause of the problem.”

Monitoring the Salama cheetah gave interesting insights into a cheetah’s life outside a national park. “What we found was that she was not the problem cheetah, because by monitoring her we could see that at the times the kills were made, she was in another area,” says Ms Wykstra. “So it was a good thing that she was not moved or killed. When we checked her out, she had three broken teeth, which would hamper her in killing livestock, anyway.”

Two of Salama’s five cubs were also fitted with collars. Five weeks after the male was fitted with a collar, the researchers lost his signal. Two weeks later, its carcass was found in a poacher’s snare. Its sibling died a similar death a few days later.

In the case of the Salama cheetah, the monitoring had already proved that she was not the culprit behind the earlier killings. Now, after the new killing, we picked up her signal far from the ranch – near a booster station on a hill where a new settler was tilling his recently acquired small plot. It was fenced all around.

The two ranches, Aimi ma Kalungu and Malili Ranch, cover more than 40,000 acres. Before the subdivision, there was little trouble as the ranches were mostly for cattle and cheetahs do not have the muscle to kill cows. “But now they are walking across the same terrain and finding sheep and goats like here.”

MR LUMUMBA, THE Community officer, interviews the herders and the watchman to find out what happened. The workers say they saw two cats in the boma (homestead). One was dragging the goat out of the enclosure. The fence around the enclosure has several gaps, allowing predators to squeeze through.

“Typically, cheetahs do not hunt at night. They are diurnal cats,” says Mr Lumumba. “Besides, they eat quickly at the site of the kill, unless it’s a female and her cubs are nearby. A cheetah does not have the strength to drag prey far. Cheetahs around the livestock ranches kill the weaker livestock or young ones.” The trio analyses the answers and what emerges is that it could have been a leopard.

“The communities have to be involved. One area is through livestock management and research. There’s very little chance that a cheetah will go for a healthy goat or cow because it cannot bring down a sizeable animal. Having more livestock to compensate for loss to predators is not a solution either. What’s needed is a healthy number that will not overgraze the land. Again, it helps if the enclosures are well maintained and the herders are alert,” says Mr Lumumba.

Another issue is farming. “With these two ranches, people have settled on virgin territory that was once scrubland. The soil is not suitable for farming, and it will always be a challenge for the people to get a decent crop here,” says Ms Wykstra.

“I was like this man before,” says Mr Lumumba. “I was angry when l kept losing my livestock to wildlife. I wanted to kill the cheetahs. When Mary first came to the area, I was even angrier than the rancher we spoke to today. But as time went on, and with her coming often, I started to understand the work that was going on and the problems. I am a shareholder of the ranch too and have a large plot here.

“So now l attend barazas to talk about our work. I even work with the local women’s groups. Many of them come and tell me about their husbands who kill wild animals to sell to the truck drivers and their concerns if they are arrested.”

THE NEXT BIGGEST THREAT for the cheetahs comes from the highway.

“The Salama cheetah then had her next litter of four. Two of them were killed crossing the Nairobi-Mombasa highway. In two years, we counted seven cheetahs killed by trucks and cars. At night, the cats freeze in the headlights of the vehicles, but usually it’s too late for the speeding vehicles to stop.”

The image that one has of T the svelte cat is of it in full sprint after its prey on the open plains. But research now shows otherwise. CCF is evaluating areas in Kenya for cheetah populations, traditional sites and unique populations.

“In Maasai Mara, there’s been a marked decline in cheetah numbers,” says Mr Isaboke. “A 1980 survey shows a population of 61 in the Mara triangle. The KWS census in 2002 shows a population of 38. The decline can be attributed to many factors – competition from the larger cats, disease, increased vehicular traffic and human encroachment. It’s the same case in the Kajiado area and the Kitengela/Athi plains, which are being subdivided into smaller plots on what was once an open migratory route for the animals of the Nairobi National Park during the dry season.”

MAGADI, ON THE OTHER hand, has not been monitored as it has traditionally not been thought of as being a cheetah habitat. It’s more famous for its salt pans and harsh, bush terrain. “We know nothing about the Magadi cheetahs. We’ve also found sizeable populations in north Kenya around Mandera and Wajir, areas of dry bush land,” says Mr Isaboke.

Traditionally, the north is typified by pastoral people moving with their livestock in search of pasture and water. But with more water points being established in the arid areas, the pastoral people are becoming more settled, which has a further impact on the local wildlife.

“Most cheetah research has been done inside the protected area in national parks and reserves where they are seen in open grass plains, giving the impression that they are cats of the flat country,” says Ms Wykstra. “But outside the protected area, cheetahs have adapted to different habitats. The Salama cheetahs show that they are adept at living in hilly bush land and their prey, like the reedbuck, are also bush animals. Cheetahs in protected areas tend to hunt for gazelles but outside they go for smaller prey like rabbits, hyrax, vervet monkeys and reedbuck.

“We’re seeing more cheetah populations outside protected areas, as much as 90 per cent,” she continues. “The reason for that could be competition inside the parks from the bigger cats like the lion and leopard.”

“Maintaining open spaces is the key to cheetah conservation,” says Ms Wykstra. “It doesn’t mean open spaces without people but co-existence. There’s a need for community-based projects tying in with tourism, perhaps a wildlife conservancy like in other parts of Kenya. It is evident that cheetahs cannot survive in national parks because of competition from other big cats. Environmental education too plays an important part.

Research helps us to make sensible decisions. Monitoring, as in the case of the Salama cheetah, proved her innocence. But monitoring is expensive. “It costs more than $1,000 per year to monitor the Salama cheetah. Her collar costs $250, the GPS (global positioning system) costs $150. The most expensive parts of the equipment are the receiver and the antenna, which cost $1,000. That’s besides the salaries of the researchers, the fuel, and the time.”

Hopefully, the countrywide cheetah survey presented to the KWS by the end of the year will help in formulating better policies and strategies for the conservation of the cheetah. Otherwise, we may be seeing the last of the cat. It has happened in other countries.


For more information on cheetahs in Kenya, log onto the website or e-mail Mary Wykstra at

No comments: