Namibian facility and UK zoo develop cheetah initiative

Namibia: Local Sanctuary And English Zoo Combine Forces On Cheetah Initiative

Tanja Bause
8 July 2009

NAMIBIA’S N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary (45 km outside of Windhoek) and the Chester Zoo (in Cheshire in the Northern part of England) are developing a pioneering method for identifying cheetahs in the wild by archiving their paw prints on an international database.

The footprint identification technique (FIT) for endangered species is already being used in monitoring other big cats including Bengal tigers and African lions, and is being developed for other endangered and elusive species ranging from Polar bears in the Arctic to the dormouse in the UK.

FIT is a non-invasive and cost-effective method of identifying and monitoring these species, and because it does not involve any handling or disturbance to the animal it is free of the potentially harmful side effects of more invasive techniques.

Zoologist Sky Alibhai and veterinarian Zoe Jewell of the Portugal-based WildTrack, an independent research organisation developing FIT, believe it could help in monitoring cheetahs – one of the world’s most threatened species.

The technology works on a similar basis to human fingerprinting because no two cheetah footprints are the same.

According to the research team the input and work done by N/a’an ku sê’s and Chester Zoo is vital and will benefit the cheetah conservation community across Africa.

Florian Weise, co-ordinator with N/a’an ku sê Research Programme, said: “Ours and Chester Zoo’s support is crucial in getting enough footprints from known reference cheetahs for us to be able to construct a software system that can then be tested with wild cheetah footprints.”

Weise has recorded the footprints of six cheetahs so far – Aiko, Kiki, Aisha, Vasco, Samira and Chiquita.

Florian said: “It’s great to be able to use these captive cheetahs that sadly, cannot be released for purposes of conservation research that will benefit the future of all cheetahs.

“The overall aim is to test whether free-roaming cheetahs can be identified from their footprints. If this is the case we can build a non-invasive monitoring technique for cheetah populations. It is extremely important because you can never catch and collar all cheetahs to find out about their population size and structure, their interactions and how the population changes over time.”

Chester Zoo keepers are currently photographing and recording footprints of its four cheetahs, three males – Burba, Singa, and Matrah – and a female called Kinky Tail.

The footprints will be logged to help build up a reference base against which further prints can be compared.

By photographing and recording footprints in the wild, researchers can monitor an animal’s movements without having caught sight of it.

Many Namibian cheetahs are in danger of being killed by farmers who fear that they will attack their livestock.

If proven viable, it is hoped these improved tracking methods, along with better communication and education of farmers, and relocation of any problem animals, will be a huge aid to international conservation efforts.

N/a’an ku sê are also thrilled that Chester Zoo is paying for two special collars for cheetahs in the wild to allow their movements to be tracked electronically.

The initial work is also being supported by Chester Zoo’s conservation department and Roger Wilkinson, Head of Field Programs and Research, said: “We are involved in outreach conservation activities that complement our conservation work in the zoo; this is work which helps many different species.

“The cheetah project further strengthens our support for cheetah conservation at home and abroad. This is a very worthwhile project looking at long term strategies to reduce conflict between cheetahs and land owners.”


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