Cheetahs and highways: a deadly combination

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Raising cheetah cubs is a tenuous affair at the best of times – only 60 per cent or so make it to maturity. For young cheetahs heading out towards independence in Zambia’s Kafue National Park, threats not only come from the wild: they also face high speed traffic on deadly highways. Panthera’s Cheetah Program Director, Dr Kim Young-Overton, reports …


The Cheetah’s Collision Course

BY KIM YOUNG-OVERTON | PANTHERA | 11 APRIL 2017

One of the best parts of living in Kafue National Park—and sharing it with the cheetahs we are working to protect—is that we get to celebrate the good times. Like when the cubs of the Konkamoya cheetah family transformed from four dependent fluffy fur balls into sleek and agile hunting machines… or when the male cubs of the Musekese family matured to form their own brothers’ coalition and ventured out to establish their own territory.

ANDREA PORRO/KONKAMOYA LODGE

The Konkamoya cubs (nearly fully grown), relaxing together after a feed

However, raising cubs to maturity is no easy feat—it’s a precarious process that takes an average of 18 months, and as the ultimate providers and teachers, cheetah mums do it all on their own. With young cubs, cheetah mothers must successfully hunt almost every day to ensure the whole family has enough food to survive, all the while protecting their cubs against other predators like lions and spotted hyenas. Sadly, cheetah mums are not successful all of the time—up to 37.5% of cheetah cubs die before maturity in the Kalahari and in the Serengeti, this figure can be as high as 95%. With this sobering reality, we were overjoyed to witness the mums of the Konkamoya and Musekese families raise their cubs to maturity.

However, although cheetah mothers can teach their cubs how to hunt and defend themselves against predators, there are several human activities for which they cannot prepare—like the fast-moving vehicles on the roads and highways traversing even the wildest of Africa’s landscapes.

As the number of vehicles in Africa increases, these strips of tarmac have become killing zones for cheetah, lions, African wild dogs and other wildlife. Wild animals do not know how to avoid being struck and killed by speeding vehicles, and to make matters worse, cheetahs often use these roads as places to rest—putting them at greater risk of being hit.

So while we celebrate the successes of some cheetah families, we also grieve for others. Just last month, another nearly grown cub was hit and killed by a vehicle—the fourth in three years killed on the highway that bisects Kafue National Park. Given that the entire park’s cheetah population numbers around 100, the death of even one cub is significant.

LAMECK SAKALA/ZAMBIAN CARNIVORE PROJECT

A cheetah struck and killed by a vehicle on a road in Kafue National Park

Unfortunately Kafue is not an outlier; there are deadly roads across the cheetah’s range. With only 7,100 cheetahs remaining in the wild, the threat posed by vehicles is real. Nowhere is this truer than in Iran, where the world’s last remaining Asiatic cheetahs cling to existence in a population with less than 50 individuals. Here, each cheetah death is a devastating blow for this critically endangered subspecies.

Panthera will work with local authorities and partners to erect signage around road kill hot spots and reduce the speed of vehicles. However, with cheetah home ranges averaging 1,500 square kilometres, reducing road kill at a local level is not enough. The combination of prey depletion, poaching, deadly conflict with humans, habitat degradation, and vehicles form a perfect storm, driving the cheetah ever closer to extinction. To secure a future for cheetahs, each and every one of these threats must be reduced at the scale at which cheetahs move and operate.

To meet this challenge, Panthera is concentrating its conservation efforts in several key cheetah landscapes. By working to reduce poaching, conflict with people, and road kill in these areas—while also establishing habitat connectivity so cheetahs can roam unimpeded—we hope to ensure that cheetah cubs have the best chance of graduating to independence, fully equipped to survive based on the teachings of their mothers.

ANDREA PORRO/KONKAMOYA LODGE

Two of the Konkamoya cubs

This article was published by Panthera. Read the original here.

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