For a species like the cheetah that is slipping from Vulnerable into the Endangered category of the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species, genetic diversity within the population is critical to the survival of this species.
The current cheetah population of &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve is classified as the most important on fenced reserves in Southern Africa (excluding the Kruger National Park). As part of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Metapopulation Project (spatially separated cheetah populations across Southern Africa within fenced reserves), they are in high demand to restock or develop new cheetah populations. This status brings with it the responsibility to ensure their genetic integrity and optimal condition.
Did you know?
- The cheetah is Africa’s most threatened big cat
- They have vanished from approximately 90% of their historic range in Africa & Asia
- Threats include human-wildlife conflict, shrinking habitat, climate change, bush encroachment, illegal wildlife trade, prey competition, and other predators (lion, leopard, hyena and other male cheetah)
- 77% of the cheetah’s habitat falls outside protected areas
- Their home ranges can exceed 1 000 km²
- Their gestation period is 93 days, with litters ranging from 1 – 6 cubs
Reduced genetic diversity comes at a high price for this threatened species…
About the Ashia-Phinda Cheetah Project
In this pioneering collaboration between Ashia Cheetah Sanctuary and &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, cheetahs born in captivity are returned to the wild of a protected reserve to increase genetic diversity – an Achilles heel for a threatened species like the cheetah.
Reduced genetic diversity or inbreeding comes at a high price: reduced litter size, physical deformities, susceptibility to disease, lower cub survival and compromised fitness.
In the course of this project, the introduced cheetah will be closely monitored and data will be gathered for a scientific study to gauge the potential of similar introductions on other reserves.
The Ashia siblings – a male and female – arrived in August 2020. On arrival, they were placed in Phinda’s predator boma (a fenced off holding space within the reserve) for almost a month to allow them time to settle in to their new surrounds.
They were introduced to a male cheetah from Phinda with the intention of bonding all three cheetahs – especially the males – to increase their chance at surviving the reserve’s dominant cheetahs. After a month of intensive monitoring, there was no progress in the bonding between the males, and the siblings were released a week later onto the reserve – still under careful observation.
First week after release
Initial reports from the Phinda Conservation team included the following feedback –
– They seemed relaxed in their new environment and feed well on the supplementary carcass provided for them
– They had a contact-free encounter with a male leopard on their first evening
– The pair stayed around the release area for about a week before moving across to another section of the reserve
It was when they had separated for a short time in this new part of the reserve that they came into contact with a coalition of two cheetah males. The monitor had stayed with the female, as the male was in dense thicket.
When the coalition attacked the female, the monitor rushed in with the vehicle and chased the male coalition off. The coalition had come from the direction of the thicket where the Ashia male was last seen and on further investigation, he was found with severe injuries. Despite urgent veterinary intervention, the Ashia male did not survive the night. The female spent a week recovering before she was released into another area of the reserve.
From strength to strength
In the period following this incident, the Ashia female has gone from strength to strength. She has explored different habitats, moving big distances on occasion, and is showing positive signs of rewilding.
She no longer requires supplementary feeding and her preferred prey has been nyala which are the most abundant prey species on the reserve; however she caught her very first impala ram recently – a more difficult catch which shows that her hunting skills are improving.
She has done well to avoid any dangers so far, and we are hopeful that in the time to come, we will be there to see her with her own cubs.