While cheetah populations have been struggling worldwide for decades, there is one country that is seeing significant cheetah population growth: South Africa. The country is home to around 1,300 of the world’s roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs and is witnessing population growth thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project.
Initiated by the Endangered Wildlife Trust nearly a decade ago, the Cheetah Metapopulation Project lies on intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. The idea is that by keeping cheetahs on smaller, private reserves rather than thinly-funded, fenceless state reserves, humans can minimize threats to the cheetahs. Of course, this raises the threat of inbreeding, which is why wildlife custodians swap animals between the different reserves ever so often.
Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana’s cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population is increasing. In Namibia, there was an estimated 3,000 cheetah in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.
In contrast, South Africa’s cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Because of the success of the Cheetah Metapopulation Project, the project is now looking beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia, and Mozambique. Still, not everyone believes the approach of protecting cheetahs within fenced off reserves is a good approach.
Wildlife researcher Gus Mills says it would be better if we focused more on taking care of the entire ecosystem so that the animals can take care of themselves and “nature can run its course.” But considering how cheetah populations have dwindled over the years, it’s hard to argue with South Africa’s non-governmental project, which has proven to be one of the only effective ways to help cheetah populations recover in modern times.