Where Have Zimbabwe’s Cheetahs Gone?
[...]“When we started our cheetah project in 2012, we spoke to the authorities and other researchers,” she recalls. “We very quickly realized that no one actually knew where the cheetahs were in Zimbabwe or how many we had left. So we decided to find out.”
Mapping and counting the cheetahs of Zimbabwe turned out to be no simple task. During their three-year road trip, Esther and her husband Hans Dullemont visited 58 of Zimbabwe’s 60 districts, surveying people in government agency offices, commercial farms, hunting concessions and conservation areas everywhere they went to gather data on cheetah sightings.
The data that Hans and Esther collected along the way were published this past September by Cheetah Conservation Project Zimbabwe, a nonprofit organization that Esther herself founded. The report paints a worrying picture for the country’s cheetah population.
Esther found that adult cheetah numbers in Zimbabwe have plummeted by 85% over the last fifteen years, with only 150 to 170 individuals now remaining. She attributes the steep decline to dramatic changes in land use patterns in areas where cheetahs once thrived.
In the early 2000’s, a government policy of land reform replaced large commercial farmlands with small-scale subsistence farms across the country. In some cases, land that was previously occupied by just one farmer suddenly had to support more than 400 households. The new system of intensive subsistence agriculture left little room for wildlife.
Now, most of the country’s remaining cheetahs are confined to wildlife protected areas. Esther’s survey found that three regions support relatively healthy cheetah populations: Hwange-Matetsi-Victoria Falls (in western Zimbabwe), Hurungwe-Mana Pools-Sapi (in the north), and Malilangwe-Gonarezhou (in the southeast). Each of these ecosystems connects with protected land in neighboring Zambia, Botswana or Mozambique.Historic and current cheetah range in Zimbabwe. 80% of cheetahs are now confined to wildlife protected areas. Map from “The Cheetahs of Zimbabwe: Distribution and Population status 2015,” by Esther van der Meer.
“These three cheetah populations have the best chance to survive,” Esther says. “We need to prioritize these areas for future conservation, and we should prioritize the cheetah in the management plans for these areas.”
She also has a wish list of many other policy proposals that could benefit cheetahs. Her recommendations include reducing the national hunting quota from 50 to five cheetahs, establishing or reviving human-wildlife conflict mitigation and education programs around key cheetah areas, and promoting joint management of cheetahs in transfrontier regions.