Why cheetahs in the Maasai Mara need better protection from tourists



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In parts of the Maasai Mara its not uncommon to see more than 30 tourist vehicles at a sighting.
Femke Broekhuis

Femke Broekhuis, University of Oxford

The global cheetah population is continuing to decline with only about 7000 individuals left in Africa. This is thought to be about half the population that existed 40 years ago. The decline has been caused by the loss and fragmentation of their natural habitats, a decline in their prey base, the illegal trade in wildlife as well as conflict with humans for space.

Cheetahs have disappeared from 91% of their historic range. This is hugely problematic as cheetahs are a wide-ranging species. To be viable a cheetah population needs a contiguous, suitable habitat which covers about 4,000–8,000 km2. But few protected areas in Africa are larger than 4,000 km2.

As a result, most of the cheetahs in the world – 77% – are believed to range outside protected areas. But this isn’t ideal for the animals as, from previous research we conducted using data from GPS satellite collars fitted on cheetahs in the Maasai Mara, we found that cheetahs avoid areas of high human disturbance and prefer protected, wildlife areas.

These results show the importance of wildlife areas for cheetahs, but my most recent research shows that these protected spaces have challenges of their own. We found that the number of cubs a cheetah is able to rear is lower in areas that receive lots of tourists compared with areas that are visited less. This suggests that cheetahs aren’t getting the protection they need, particularly from the impact of growing numbers of tourists.

Maasai Mara

Kenya’s Maasai Mara has one of the highest cheetah densities in the world, but it’s a landscape that is under increasing human pressure.

Famous for its spectacular wildebeest migration, the Maasai Mara is a popular tourist destination. The wildlife areas of the Maasai Mara include the Maasai Mara National Reserve, which is managed by the Narok County Government, and numerous wildlife conservancies, each run by different management companies.

The conservancies are formed through a partnership between Maasai landowners and tourism companies, whereby landowners receive a fixed, monthly payment for leasing their land for wildlife based activities on the condition that they do not live on the land, cultivate or develop it. Combined, the wildlife areas, which are predominantly used for photographic tourism, cover an area of about 2,600 km2 – one-tenth the size of Wales or Belgium.

During the high season about 2,700 people visit the Maasai Mara National Reserve daily. But they are often not adequately managed.

The Mara Reserve – with the exception of a conservancy called the Mara Triangle – doesn’t limit the number of tourists that enter the park per day, and there are no restrictions on the number of tourist vehicles at a predator sighting. It’s therefore not uncommon to see more than 30 tourist vehicles at a sighting.

Ideally, the Mara Reserve should restrict the number of tourists, especially during the peak tourist seasons.

Tourists also affect the landscape of wildlife areas. For example, tourist accommodation is continuing to increase in the Mara Reserve and these facilities are usually built on river banks which are prime habitats for species such as elephants, leopards and breeding raptors.

The research

One crucial element for a healthy cheetah population is cub recruitment, defined as offspring survival to independence.

Cheetahs have relatively big litters, ranging between one to six cubs. But cheetah cubs can succumb to various factors including abandonment, poor health, and fires so the number of cubs that reach independence can be very low, ranging from 5% to 28.9%.

I was interested in finding out if tourism is playing a role in this.

By analysing four years of data on female cheetahs with cubs it became apparent that high numbers of tourists are having a negative effect on the number of cubs that reach independence. More specifically, females in areas with a lot of tourists on average raised one cub (or none survive) per litter to independence compared to more than two cubs in low tourist areas.

There was no hard evidence of direct mortality caused by tourists. But my conclusion from my findings is that tourists are likely to have an indirect effect on cub survival. This could be because they lead to cheetahs changing their behaviour and increase their stress levels by getting too close, overcrowding with too many vehicles, staying at sightings for prolonged periods of time and by making excessive noise.

What can be done?

My study highlights the importance of implementing and enforcing strict wildlife viewing guidelines, especially in areas where tourist numbers are high. The Maasai Mara’s wildlife conservancies are largely getting this right. Tourist numbers are limited to the number of beds per conservancy and only five vehicles are allowed at a sighting at any given time.

Actions that could be taken include:

  • allowing no more than five vehicles at a cheetah sighting;

  • ensuring that no tourist vehicles are allowed near a cheetah lair (den);

  • ensuring that vehicles keep a minimum distance of 30m at a cheetah sighting;

  • ensuring that noise levels and general disturbance at sightings are kept to a minimum;

  • ensuring that vehicles do not separate mothers and cubs; and that

  • cheetahs on a kill are not enclosed by vehicles so that they can’t detect approaching danger.

If tourism is controlled and managed properly, it can play a very positive role in conservation. Money from tourism goes towards the creation and maintenance of protected areas – like the wildlife conservancies – and can help alleviate poverty. It also shows local communities the benefits that predators can bring and can positively influence attitudes.

The ConversationHowever if human pressures, like tourism, remain unchecked it risks having a negative impact on wildlife and could mean the loss of some of the biggest attractions – like cheetahs.

Femke Broekhuis, Senior research associate, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The endangered species list: counting lemurs in Madagascar


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The endangered Coquerel’s Sifaka lemur.
Shutterstock/Monika Hrdinova

Ian Colquhoun, Western University

Most people are familiar with the endangered species list. Officially known as the IUCN Red List of threatened species, it’s coordinated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and provides the most up-to-date indication of the health of the world’s plants, animals and fungi to guide critical conservation action.

Examples include reports on declining leopard populations and improving mountain gorilla numbers. The list also signals when a species hasn’t been sighted in decades, is feared extinct, or has been “rediscovered” – as was the case for the large-billed reed-warbler.

To date, more than 91 000 species have been assessed for The IUCN red list. But, how is the list constructed and who is involved?

It’s a surprisingly complex process, involving the combined efforts of literally thousands of researchers. These “specialist group” volunteers use their expertise and time to create and maintain a central database which monitors the conservation statuses of the planet’s species. For mammals alone, there are 37 specialist groups.

My own involvement in contributing to the list has been through the Madagascar section of the IUCN Primate Specialist Group. This group involves approximately 450 primatologists worldwide. We are organised into specialist sections according to the biological classification of primate groups, such as the great apes, or regional areas of primate occurrence like South America or Africa. The Madagascar section of the group includes about 90 researchers who specialise in the study of lemur species.

Cyclical evaluation

Every five years the various specialist groups undertake reevaluations of the conservation statuses of the species on which they focus. This is currently being carried out for all 113 known lemur species by our section.

The last conservation assessment, conducted back in 2012, led to the alarming conclusion that lemurs are the most endangered group of mammals on the planet – 94% of all lemur species were classified as either “endangered” or “critically endangered”. A lot can change in five years. Since then, new lemur species have been described and there’s been a wealth of new field study data gathered on known lemur species. All this feeds into the current lemur conservation status reassessments.

The basis of the cyclical process is information that the IUCN specialist groups gather from researchers and their field studies. The researchers can either be university based, NGO’s or privately funded ones. The field data are assessed according to an extensive set of evaluative quantitative criteria, including: population size; the risk of continuing decline in total population size; and the degree to which the species under consideration now exist in small and relatively isolated subpopulations, as these subpopulations are at a greater risk of going locally extinct.

Species were broadly categorised as “endangered”, “vulnerable”, “rare”, “indeterminate”, or “other”. But, since the mid-1990s, a quantitatively-based conservation status assessment process has instead been adopted. This developed out of internal review of the species conservation assessment process. The current assessment practice places a premium on using up-to-date quantitative field data to the greatest extent possible. Species are now classified as either: “data deficient”, least concern”, or as falling into one of the “threatened” categories, “vulnerable”, “endangered”, or “critically endangered”.

It’s not unusual that for a given species the desired quantitative data are simply not available or known. In such cases, the IUCN still encourages that:

the absence of high-quality data should not deter attempts at applying the criteria, as methods involving estimation, inference and projection are emphasised as being acceptable…

This is where the role of research experts really comes to the fore. Researchers who have conducted recent field studies can provide relatively up-to-date insight on situations regarding species, even though these data may not yet be published. For many species groups, including lemurs, it’s a relatively short list of researchers who fit that bill.

So, to some extent, it’s a case of either using on-the-ground knowledge of the species or site knowledge of those experienced researchers, or attempt to arrive at conservation assessments without their expert input. But it also depends on who is in the room when the assessments are made.

Important lists

This reliance on expert input, while recognised as being of key importance, has also recently come under criticism for not also employing evidence or proper process in making decisions.

But, because swift conservation action is seen as crucial to the overall process, the central role of expert researchers in determining the conservation statuses of species will continue in the future.

The IUCN Red List is not the only endangered species list out there. For example in the primate world, the International Primatological Society produces a biennial review report with the IUCN looking at the 25 most endangered primates.

The ConversationThe next one will be released after the Congress of the International Primatological Society in Nairobi. It will show how important these lists are to raise public consciousness of the threats that primates face, and the conservation efforts used to address them.

Ian Colquhoun, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Western University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.