Sadly, the fastest mammal on earth is racing towards extinction. There are only an estimated 6 700 adult cheetah left in the wild and not only has their overall population decreased by an astounding 50% over the past four decades, they have also been driven out of 89% of their historic range due to human encroachment and habitat loss. A recent cheetah census further suggests that the population could drop an additional 53% in the next 15 years. If we are going to save this vulnerable species from extinction, the time to act is now.
&Beyond’s core ethos of caring for the land, wildlife and people is only made possible by the fact that guests continue to travel with us — it is their travel spend that enables our conservation projects. Guests visiting &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, which is arguably one of the best places in South Africa to view cheetah in the wild, can not only enjoy a luxurious safari in an iconic destination, but they can also rest assured that their time at Phinda directly contributes to our ongoing and successful conservation efforts to save the cheetah before it’s too late.
Our &Beyond Phinda conservation team works closely with The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), a like-minded conservation company that is committed to preserving wildlife and maintaining biodiversity. EWT’s cheetah metapopulation project has classified Phinda as the most important cheetah population in South Africa (excluding the Kruger National Park) and Phinda’s genetically-strong and predator-savvy cheetah are in high demand to help stock other wildlife areas and create new, healthy metapopulations across Southern Africa.
This project aims to maintain the genetic and demographic integrity of Southern Africa’s wild cheetah within fenced reserves by implementing a well-managed metapopulation approach. By definition, a metapopulation is a group of smaller populations of the same species that are separated by distance, yet still interact as individual members are moved from one population to another in order to strengthen and diversify the gene pools.
EWT’s Cheetah Metapopulation Coordinator, Vincent van der Merwe, emphasises, “All of our wildlife reserves in South Africa are fenced and whilst this does prevent anthropogenic (human-inflicted) mortality, it does also inhibit natural gene flow. Human-mediated gene flow is therefore necessary to maintain robust genetic health among the cheetah populations.”
Remarkably, 7.5% of the 1 200 wild cheetah found in South Africa originate from Phinda, and of the 350-strong South African and Malawian cheetah metapopulation, an impressive 26% can also trace their roots back to Phinda. These are impressive numbers that support the strength and genetic diversity of Phinda’s cheetah and the success of the reserve’s ongoing wildlife management practices.
Why are Phinda’s cheetah in such high demand?
&Beyond was launched with the creation of Phinda Private Game Reserve in 1991, on a model that is now widely regarded as one of the most ambitious and successful blueprints for international ecotourism (read the full Phinda story here). The mistreated wasteland was restored to its natural splendour and, most importantly, the long-forgotten wildlife that once roamed the area freely was successfully reintroduced.
In 1992, Phinda became the first private game reserve in South Africa to reintroduce cheetah and since these cats were not readily available from sources within the country at the time, Phinda’s founder population actually came from neighbouring Namibia. This means that Phinda’s cheetah are not genetically related to the other cheetah within the metapopulation.
Also interesting to note, is that the cheetah were intentionally reintroduced before the lions, which gave them a head start, so to speak, in strengthening their population, forming their own bonds and territories and becoming predator-savvy in order to increase their chances of survival once the lions were reintroduced.
Meticulous wildlife management
For nearly three decades, Phinda has been meticulously and expertly managed in order to maintain biodiversity, alleviate inbreeding and promote conservation. Its wildlife populations are managed responsibly and strong genetic integrity among species is always maintained.
Despite being one sixth of the size of Kenya’s world-famous Masai Mara National Reserve, Phinda actually supports the same number of cheetah, along with high densities of lion, leopard and spotted hyena. Occasionally, endangered African wild dogs will also pass through the area.
Research has proven that because Phinda’s cheetah successfully coexist with these predators in such a high-density predator environment, they have become exceptionally alert and predator-savvy and they adapt remarkably well when translocated to other areas.
Also, with seven unique and distinctly different habitats on Phinda, the ongoing cheetah monitoring and research enables an in-depth understanding of how these vulnerable cats behave and adapt in different habitats, making them even more adaptable to new habitats.
Reversing a local extinction
In 2017, EWT expanded its borders beyond South Africa for the first time. Together with African Parks, they safely translocated four cheetah to Malawi and successfully reversed a four-decade-long local extinction in Liwonde National Park. Among this new cheetah population was an adult male that originated from Phinda. He mated with a female and fathered a litter of healthy cubs and this now-thriving Malawian population continues to grow.
And in terms of cheetah cub survival rate, only an estimated 5% of cubs actually make it to independence. However, Phinda has significantly improved these odds, with an impressive 46% of Phinda cubs making it to adulthood. This conservation victory is largely due to the meticulous management of cheetah in relation to the other predators.
Since the cheetah metapopulation project was implemented in 2011, almost 30 cheetah from Phinda have now been safely translocated to several of the 53 cheetah metapopulation reserves. These new populations continue to thrive, as does the genetically strong Phinda population itself, and we hope this gives the species a fighting chance at survival.