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Historical distribution of Cheetah in South Africa

Early records of Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) distribution in South Africa are not comprehensive. It is thought that they were widespread in the country but absent from forests, high mountainous areas with steep slopes and semi-desert areas with very low prey densities. On a broader scale, Marker (1998) suggested that Cheetahs were widely distributed through Africa in all suitable habitats from the Cape of Good Hope to the Mediterranean.

More specific historical records for Cheetah in South Africa come from the Northern, Western and Eastern Cape. In 1840, Cheetah were said to be locally common at Goodhouse on the Orange River that forms the border between South Africa and Namibia (Skead 1980). Five Cheetah that were reported killed in the Beaufort West area of the Western Cape in the 1860’s (Skinner & Smithers 1990). The paucity of historical records of Cheetah in the Eastern Cape suggests they was scarce when Europeans arrived and restricted to the drier, open country inland (Skead 1987). Reintroductions to the more mesic habitats of the Eastern Cape may be extralimital (Hayward et al. 2007). Cheetah were reportedly extirpated from the Eastern Cape in 1888 when the last known Cheetahs were killed 30km north of Grahamstown (Skead 1987). Cheetahs were still recorded to occur in the Bushmanland and Kenhardt districts of the Northern Cape in 1942 (Shortridge 1942). Five Cheetah were reportedly shot on the Oranjemund Golf course, some three kilometres from the mouth of the Orange river, in 1965. Cheetah have since not been seen on either side of the Orange river in this area (Estes 1992). A wild cheetah was shot on the West Coast near Kleinsee in 1993.
Historical records for cheetah on the more recently colonised eastern portions of South Africa are almost completely absent. Cheetah allegedly occurred in low numbers in the north-eastern Kwa-Zulu Natal province at the onset of European colonisation (Pringle 1977). The are no known historical records for cheetah in the Free State however Bloemfontein’s Sesotho name Mangaung means “place of the Cheetahs”. Oral testimonies obtained through the National Museums Batho Project claim that the first settlers in this area were stunned by the large number of cheetah that roamed the vast plains (Du Bruyn 2010). Several reports of skins and sightings of king Cheetah have been received from areas in both Limpopo and Mpumulanga provinces since the 1930’s. Myers (1975) recorded a Cheetah sighting near the Brak river in the Soutpansberg region of Limpopo province in 1966.

With the exception of a population of approximately 60 to 80 Cheetah in the Kalahari-Gemsbok National Park, Cheetah were completely eradicated from the Western, Eastern and Northern Cape by the 1960’s (Stuart et al. 1985). Pringle (1977) reports that Cheetah became extinct from KwaZulu-Natal in the 1920’s. It is not known when cheetah were extirpated from the Free State and Gauteng Provinces. This most likely occurred when these provinces had become fully settled by the late 19th century. The establishment of the Kruger National Park in 1898 ensured that Cheetah were never extirpated from Mpumulanga and Limpopo Provinces. Despite persecution by farmers, free roaming populations of leopards, cheetahs and wild dogs has always persisted in the Waterberg mountains of Limpopo. A population of free roaming cheetah has also persisted on the northern border of South Africa with Botswana and Zimbabwe, possibly sustained by individuals moving into South Africa from these countries.