Like many other big cat species, the cheetah has seen a significant population decline in the last few decades. Their number has dropped from 14,000 in 1975 to only about 7,000 today, and their habitat is now restricted to eastern and southern Africa. Most of the world’s cheetahs now live on farmland where they’re at risk of being killed by farmers as either a protective measure or in retaliation for attacking livestock. If something isn’t done to protect these animals, they might disappear forever.
The world is a long way off from finding a complete solution, but a study on cheetah communication is already making an important impact on how humans and cheetahs co-exist. It’s the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that could even inspire conservation efforts for other species.
Cheetah Social Structure
The study is a continuation of research that has been conducted on cheetahs since the 1980’s. That’s when researchers and conservationists took a more detailed look at the cheetah social system. They learned that while female cheetahs travel over huge areas of land, that land is split into smaller territories controlled by different males. The males are typically tolerant of visiting females, but males fight each other for control of different territories. Males that don’t have land of their own, called floaters, sometimes fight land-holding males for the right to take over.
How Cheetahs Communicate
To continue this research on cheetah social structure, spatial ecologist Joerg Melzheimer led a team of researchers to look closely at cheetah communication. They found that cheetahs use specific landmarks, like big rocks or trees, to serve as “communication hubs.” Melzheimer compared these hubs to a neighborhood’s local bar and discovered that these locations are extremely important to local cheetah populations.
For the study, Melzheimer attached radio collars to 106 adult cheetahs living on cattle ranches in central Nambia. For 11 years, his team of researchers plotted the movements and behaviors of the big cats as they hunted, reproduced, and fought for territory.
Through this observation, the researchers identified several of these cheetah communication hubs. The hubs were usually located in the center of a male’s territory and were visited by the land-owning male, floaters, and females. Each group, however, seemed to use the location differently.
The land-owning males, for example, visited their personal communication hubs frequently and repeatedly marked the spot with urine. Floaters also visited the sites regularly, but they rarely left their mark. They went for a quick sniff, and after receiving that scent message, continued on their way. The third group, the females, seemed to treat the communication hubs as dating message boards. They visited the locations on occasion and left their mark when they were in heat. Melzeheimer compares it to males and females visiting a bar for a better chance of finding a match. Even when a new male took over a territory, the location of the communication hub didn’t change.
Throughout the years of research, one thing became clear: these cheetah communication hubs are extremely important to the local cheetah population. With that in mind, researchers turned to the conflict between cheetahs and farmers.
Co-Existing With Humans
Melzheimer’s team communicated with 35 farmers who had all lost livestock to cheetah attacks. Looking at a map, researchers noticed that six of those farmers had lost their animals near cheetah communication hubs located on their land. Theorizing that the hubs were more important to the cheetahs than the livestock, researchers suggested that the farmers move their suckling calves to other areas away from the hubs. While skeptical, the farmers agreed.
The results that came from moving the herds are incredible. The number of cheetah attacks on livestock went down 86% for those six farmers. With fewer attacks on livestock, the farmers were better able to share the land with the wild animals.
Melzheimer wrote that cheetahs are not “problem animals.” There are only “problem areas” that can cause conflict between the animals and humans. Their solution based on a better understanding of cheetah communication is protecting both the livelihoods of farmers and the cheetah population. If cheetahs aren’t attacking livestock, farmers are less likely to kill them, and the two species are one step closer to peacefully co-existing.
h/t: Science Mag