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Using a real-world laboratory to resolve cheetah-farmer conflict

Scientists at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research have found the key to solving a cheetah-farmer conflict in central Namibia. In collaboration with local farmers, the researchers found that moving cattle herds out of cheetah hotspots reduced losses of livestock by more than 80 percent.

One of the most important refuges for the declining global cheetah population is in rural central Namibia, where the large African cats live on privately owned farmland rather than in protected areas. The proximity causes conflict with cattle farmers because the cheetahs prey on their calves.

“This conflict is an important reason for the decline of the Namibian cheetah population, thus solutions to this conflict that are viable for both farmers and cheetahs needed to be developed,” said study co-author Dr. Jörg Melzheimer, who is a spatial ecologist involved with the Leibniz-IZW Cheetah Research Project (CRP) in Namibia.

“Supported by the farmers we caught more than 250 cheetahs and equipped many of them with high resolution GPS collars to thoroughly analyze their spatial behavior,” explained study co-author Dr. Bettina Wachter.

Overall, the collars recorded several million individual locations. The researchers analyzed this massive dataset, and identified two distinct spatial tactics of male cheetahs. They found that about one-third of the males own small territories where they mark 20 to 40 prominent landmarks such as trees or rocks with their scent. The other males, called floaters, do not own a territory but roam over vast areas. 

“The territories are not contiguous, but spread evenly across the landscape with a lot of open space between them,” said Dr. Melzheimer. “Floaters visit the core areas of the territories frequently to gather information on the current territory holders and to consider their chances of queueing for territory ownership or winning a fight for the territory. At the same time, the females regularly visit these areas in search of mating partners.” 

As a result, the core areas of the territories serve as communication hubs for the local cheetah population and are hotspots of cheetah activity. The communication hubs represent areas with a high local predation risk for livestock. On the other hand, the remaining land in between the hotspots, which makes up 90 percent of the total area,  has only a low predation risk. 

The experts mapped out the hotspots and determined that 30 percent of the cattle farmers are affected to varying degrees by cheetah activity, even though these communication hubs cover only a small part of the study area.

Based on the findings, the Leibniz-IZW scientists collaborated with the farmers to design an experiment. Breeding herds with young calves that were located within the newly discovered communication hubs were moved to areas with much less cheetah activity. 

“These experiments were highly successful and reduced the livestock losses of farmers by more than 80 percent,” said the researchers. “We demonstrated that cheetahs did not follow the breeding herds, but maintained their spatial system of communication hubs and instead preyed on wildlife occurring naturally on the farms in the hotspot locations. This implies that there are no problem cheetahs, but problem areas with high predation risk.”

The collaboration between the scientists and farmers was based on the concept of a “real-world laboratory,” where they worked together to formulate research questions and to determine potential solutions to the conflict. 

“This allowed us to work as partners on a real-world problem and to find solutions together, as well as to communicate them in the relevant communities, thereby helping to spread the successful application of the solutions,” said Dr. Melzheimer. “The future of the cheetah does not lie in the hand of scientists or conservationists, it depends on all stakeholders working together on viable solutions.”

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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