Can trees protect cheetahs?

Early this year, a report was released highlighting the current crisis the iconic cheetah is facing worldwide. It is now estimated that only around 7000 cheetahs remain in Africa and more than three-quarters of their population exists outside of protected areas. With most cheetah facing their current existence in human-occupied areas, and under threat from persecution and habitat loss, it is essential that we focus our efforts on conserving cheetah in these non-protected areas.

Finding cheetah in these landscapes is extremely difficult, as they are naturally wide ranging and exist in low numbers. They are also shy and elusive creatures that often avoid areas where people are found. Yet we need to learn about cheetah behaviour, ecology and movements in these areas in order to better protect them.

So how might we go about finding these elusive and enigmatic creatures?

As in many other studies, we have found camera traps to be of immense value in locating, identifying and monitoring cheetah. But this is not as always easy as it may seem. Unlike many species, cheetahs generally avoid roads and even game trails. In a recent short study, we placed camera traps along roads on several farms and only captured one photo of a cheetah. Yet we knew that cheetahs were present in these areas.

Unlike areas in the Serengeti, where cheetahs are synonymous with speed and large open grasslands and where the classic hunts featured in many documentaries are filmed, the farming areas in southern Africa, particularly those in Botswana, are environments that are heavily bush encroached and very similar in structure. The classic termite mounds, that photographers love to capture glamorous images of cheetah, are non-existent.

However, it has been discovered in places like Namibia that cheetahs love to use “marking trees” (also known as “play trees”). These trees are usually larger than the average tree in an area and commonly have a large sloping trunk which allows cheetahs to climb with ease. The trees provide an opportunity for cheetahs to gain some height in the rather flat landscape and we think may also facilitate with hunting. But more importantly, it has been discovered that cheetahs, especially males, use these trees to mark their territory. Resident males (usually in coalitions numbering two or three but sometimes also alone) will spray these trees with their urine and faeces to let other non-resident males (those without a territory) know that this is their territory and to tell them to move on. We are beginning to understand that territories are very important to male cheetahs as they usually cover areas with key resources but also because it increases their chances of mating with females.

In fact, these “marking trees” are so important to male cheetahs, that residents will regularly visit the trees in their territory and often move directly from tree to tree. By finding and locating such trees, our research team has been monitoring these hotspots by placing cameras at these locations. Consequently, we are able to monitor local populations, identify residents and non-residents, gain information about home range size and even use them as opportunities to collar individuals.

But how do we find these trees in such dense environments?

In the past the knowledge of local bushman and farmers has proved invaluable for locating marking trees. In addition to this we have also been trialling the use of scat detection dogs as a way to locate trees in new areas. Similarly, we are also trialling the use of lures as a way to create “artificial” marking trees (trees not already used by cheetah but that may attract cheetah) as a way to increase our ability to find and monitor cheetah populations in the vast and remote areas of the Kalahari.