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The status of Cheetah in the Lowveld cluster

In July 2014 the Lowveld cluster was comprised of 9 reserves which held 27 Cheetah. Eight of these reserves are in Limpopo Province whilst one is located close to the Swaziland border in Mpumulanga Province. There are two state Air Force Bases and seven private game reserves in the cluster, with private reserves holding 93% of the clusters Cheetah.

The first reintroduction into this cluster took place in 1994 when a male coalition was introduced onto Hoedspruit Air Force Base. The purpose of this reintroduction was to promote flight safety was keeping runways clear of game. Apart from one incident where an aircraft collided with and killed a Cheetah, this concept has been largely successful and cheetah were reintroduced into Makado Air Force Base in 1998. The NCCF reintroduced Cheetah into a further eight Lowveld reserves between 1999 and 2009. Cheetah reintroductions into one Lowveld reserve failed due to inadequate fencing. All cheetah reintroduced onto this reserve escaped. Metapopulation cheetah reintroduced onto one reserve were absorbed into the Greater Kruger National Park population when this reserve dropped fences with Kruger National Park.

Figure 1. A timeline of Cheetah reintroductions into small fenced reserves in the Lowveld cluster.

Cheetah numbers in the Lowveld cluster decreased dramatically in 2009 when a large Lowveld reserve was incorporated into the Greater Kruger National Park. Numbers have gradually decreased ever since despite sourcing five cheetah from outside clusters between January 2012 and January 2014 to stabilise numbers. Five out of the nine Lowveld reserves have only a single sex of cheetah present, thereby preventing breeding from taking place.

Figure 2. The number of Metapopulation Cheetah in the Waterberg cluster for the period January 2004 to July 2014.
There is potential for Metapopulation expansion in the Lowveld with two new reserves having expressed interest in Cheetah reintroduction in July 2014. At the same time the demand for Cheetah by existing reserves stood at 17.

Map of Lowveld reserves – large number of small reserves

Origin of Lowveld Cluster Cheetahs

Only one quarter of Lowveld Cheetah were born on reserves where they are currently resident (July 2014). Lowveld reserves are small and hold on average only three cheetah (July 2014.) Smaller populations are more management intensive and almost 50% of Lowveld Cheetah were sourced from reserves in outside clusters. Two wild cheetah of Namibian origin were sourced by a local captive centre and introduced onto one reserve. Over three quarters of Lowveld reserves are located within the current range of free roaming cheetahs. Two free roamers are now resident on Lowveld Metapopulation reserves whilst other free roamers are known to move through reserves.

Figure 3. The origin of Metapopulation Cheetah in the Lowveld cluster.

Prey and habitat preference

Questionnaire data managers suggest that the main three prey items taken by Lowveld Cheetah are Impala (Aepyceros melampus), Nyala (Nyala angasii) and Warthog (Phacochoerus africanus). Bushbuck (Tragelaphus sylvaticus), Kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros) and Grey Duiker (Sylvicarpa grimmia) are also regularly taken. In spring, young Zebra (Equus burchellii) and Wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) were reported to constitute more regular prey items. The use of fence lines to ambush prey whilst hunting was reported in three Lowveld Cluster reserves.
Questionnaire data suggests that Cheetah prefer thicker vegetation in the Lowveld Cluster. Females are reported to hunt almost exclusively in riverine areas. Whilst males do occupy riverine areas they reportedly make use of more open areas to hunt.

Photograph of Cheetah in thicker Lowveld vegetation – Both male and female reportedly prefer thicker veg with females hunting almost exclusively in thicker riverine areas

Management issues in the Lowveld cluster

Cheetahs have reportedly escaped on numerous occasions from five of the nine Lowveld reserves surveyed. In most cases no attempts were made to recapture escapees and they returned naturally. Rangers lured one escapee back into a reserve with bait. Fences were lifted to allow him enter. In only one case did a vet have to be called in to immobilise escapees when a female and her three cubs moved through fences into a neighbouring property. Only the female was immobilised. She was put into a cage trap and a small boma was erected around the cage trap. The cubs were recaptured when they entered the boma.
More than half of Lowveld reserves hold only a single sex of cheetah. Two of these reserve are not large enough to hold breeding populations whilst the other three have not been able to source female Cheetah. Cheetah reintroductions into reserves that are not willing to hold breeding populations are not encouraged by the Cheetah Metapopulation Project. These reserves could however serve as temporary holding facilities when there is a surplus of Cheetah in the Metapopulation. This will ensure that important genetics is not lost to the Metapopulation.