The perilous 1,000-mile journey to save Africa’s endangered black rhinos
28 Oct 2022
Maputo Special Reserve, Mozambique, recently suffered the sad loss of one of the cheetahs reintroduced in October 2021, after the cheetah broke through the fence of the reserve and got caught in a snare some 4.3 km outside the boundary. Snares such as this one are common in areas where communities catch antelope to subsidise their protein requirements. The cheetah had been roaming the reserve widely as part of the normal ranging activities these big cats typically undertake when exploring a new area.
Rewilding is a vital component of the restoration of wilderness areas across Africa and is essential for the long-term sustainability of nature and of humankind. Peace Parks, in partnership with Government Conservation Agencies, donors, and other NGO partners, has a long and successful track record of reintroducing species to the areas where they previously occurred. Over 25,000 animals have been successfully reintroduced to parks throughout southern Africa. Despite many successes, Peace Parks is fully cognisant of the inherent risks that come with any translocation of wild animals.
Even with rigorous feasibility studies, decades of expertise and the most carefully laid contingency plans, the loss of animals during a translocation, or in the weeks immediately thereafter, may occur for a variety of reasons.
Over the past decade, a rewilding programme (accelerated under a partnership agreement between Mozambique’s National Administration for Conservation Areas and Peace Parks, with support from Mozbio and various other donors) has seen more than 5 000 animals reintroduced into the reserve. Through vastly improved management measures and a robust wildlife protection strategy, the reserve has become a safe haven, allowing animal populations to blossom to between 15 000 and 17 000 individuals.
In order to further the goal of restoring full ecological balance in Maputo Special Reserve, Peace Parks embarked on an investigation to determine whether cheetah could be reintroduced into the reserve after a 60-year absence. An in-depth feasibility study from the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), which considered important biological, logistical, and security measures, found that the reserve is suitable for the reintroduction of cheetah. The establishment of healthy cheetah populations by reintroducing cheetahs into suitable, well-protected habitats where they previously occurred has been identified as one of the most effective measures to save this threatened cat from extinction.
After a consultancy process with the Mozambique government and local communities, ANAC and Peace Parks partnered with the EWT’s Cheetah Range Expansion Project and Ashia Cheetah Conservation, with veterinary support provided by the Mozambique Wildlife Alliance, to embark on the translocation of four cheetahs to Maputo Special Reserve. The cheetahs were flown in from South Africa and spent three weeks acclimatising in bomas within the reserve before being reintroduced into the wider ecosystem.
As anticipated, tracking data from the cheetahs’ satellite collars showed that the big cats had been roaming widely around the reserve as they have explored their new home. Last week, an update showed that one of the males had ventured outside of the reserve and travelled 4 km beyond the boundaries. Upon following up, the response team found the cheetah trapped in a snare and already deceased.
Follow-up patrols have been mobilised to double-check the reserve’s fences, which may be damaged by elephants or compromised by warthogs and other animals digging under them. Over the past four years, rangers removed more than 3 000 snares from inside the reserve – almost completely ridding the protected area of these silent killers. They are now also going beyond the call of duty to remove snares in areas outside the reserve’s boundaries.
Tracking data show that the remaining cheetahs continue to investigate all corners of Maputo Special Reserve. Contrary to what people may assume, cheetahs are not a threat to surrounding communities or visitors to the reserve, as they are shy animals and avoid direct contact with humans at all costs. Due to their light weight and slight form, they also pose little threat to cattle. The communities have welcomed the reintroduction of the big cats as an important part of the development of eco-tourism opportunities that will benefit the region’s people and further conservation efforts.
In order to keep the cheetahs as safe as possible, the reserve’s staff and partners are working around the clock to closely monitor them through satellite collars, VHF tracking and aerial helicopter support. When necessary, they are gently nudged back towards the centre of the reserve. We hope that the founder population will soon settle into the core of the reserve that typically has an abundance of preferred prey and is free of threats.
Research students are also on-site recording and collecting vital data on the animals’ behaviour, which will help to inform improved cheetah management strategies for the reserve. Additional, phased cheetah reintroductions are planned over the next years to strengthen genetics and build a stable population.
The EWT’s Cheetah Range Expansion Project has doubled the cheetah metapopulation from 217 animals in 48 protected areas to 478 cheetahs in 67 protected areas in South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi. The cheetah population across this network of protected areas constitutes the only growing wild population worldwide.
While there will inevitably be more setbacks and challenges as we work to restore our natural spaces to their original state, nature is resilient, and we are optimistic that, if we persevere and be patient, working with nature will restore the area’s ecological balance, allowing its wildlife and people to thrive.