Cheetahs make a comeback

SEVERAL new fast cats are now operating in one of Africa’s oldest game reserves – and the 14 000 strong impala population in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park has reason to be nervous.

According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, nearly 75% of Africa’s remaining cheetahs live outside formally protected game parks and are extremely fragmented. Their English name is derived from the Hindi word Chita, meaning “spotted one”, while the generic name Acinonyx is a reference to the animal’s non-retracting claws Pictures: TONY CARNIE

Because cheetahs are the fastest cats on the planet, capable of explosive bouts of speed (about 29 metres per second, or over 100 km/h) and impala is one of their favourite dinners.

Yet for all their speed, Africa’s cheetahs have disappeared from nearly 90% of their historic range over the past century or so, and there are now just 6 500 wild specimens left throughout the continent.

And in the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s flagship Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park there are only three cheetahs left, all of them closely-related through blood.

Over the next few months, however, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife is hoping to bring at least 10 more cheetahs into the park – and four of these new cats were due to be released last week.

Park ecologist Dr Dave Druce says cheetah disappeared from the park in the 1920s and an attempt was made to re-establish a stronghold for the increasingly threatened cats when 64 cheetahs were brought in from Namibia between 1965 and 1978.

However, it is believed that most of these animals either fled from the park or were killed by other predators and a further unknown number of cats was re-introduced in 1995.

Six years ago there were only 11 survivors and this has since dropped to three – two sisters and one of their sons.

The first four new cheetah arrived in the park from Shamwari game reserve and Mountain Zebra National Park about a month ago and were held in capture bomas so they could settle down in their new environment before being set free last week.

EYES PEELED: Impala are pretty fleet-footed but they are among the favourite meals for cheetah, which can reach speeds of over 100 km/h Pictures: TONY CARNIE

Section ranger Jed Bird believes it is the ideal time to let them loose. Natural water resources and vegetation for prey animals has recovered quite well following several years of drought – and the impala lambing season is about to begin.

Bird reckons you can almost set your clock by the lambing season (normally November 11 – 19, though it might be a few days later this year) and this will help to ensure abundant prey for the new releases – two males and two females.

Druce said Ezemvelo had been trying to secure new cheetah for the last three years and the four latest re-introductions had been made possible with financial assistance from the Wildlife Act wildlife monitoring group and by local photographer and conservationist Andrew Bone.

All the new arrivals have been fitted with GPS monitoring collars, allowing researchers to obtain readings of their movements six times a day.

Druce says researchers hope to gain a much better understanding about how the cheetahs interact with other predators such as lions, hyaena and wild dogs, as well more detailed information on their prey and seasonal movements.

TONY CARNIE

TimesLIVE/

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