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News Article

Wildlife tourists decrease breeding success in Kenya’s cheetahs


Cheetahs fail to rear their young in high tourism areas

High levels of tourism can lead to a dramatic reduction in the number of cheetahs able to raise their young to independence, new research has found. Research in Kenya’s Maasai Mara savanna, published in the journal Ecology and Evolution, found that in areas with a high density of tourist vehicles, the average number of cubs a mother cheetah raised to independence was just 0.2 cubs per litter – less than a tenth of the 2.3 cubs per litter expected in areas with low tourism. The results are concerning for a species which has experienced dramatic population declines, with only about 7000 mature individuals left in the wild in Africa.

Dr Femke Broekhuis, a researcher at Oxford University and the author of the study, surveyed cheetahs in an area including the Maasai Mara National Reserve and a number of privately managed game conservancies. The habitat in the study area varies greatly, ranging from open grasslands and shrubland, to riverine forests. Surveys in 2013-2017 recorded presence of female cheetahs and dependent cubs, together with data on habitat, abundance of lions and hyaenas, and frequency of tourist vehicles.

Per litter, female cheetahs on average raised 1.71 ± 1.35 cubs to independence, but this varied depending on the presence of open habitat and the abundance of tourists, both of which had a negative effect on cub recruitment. Female cheetahs that were mostly found in open habitats on average raised 1.69 ± 0.14 cubs per litter to independence compared to 3.04 ± 0.26 cubs in denser habitat. Similarly, female cheetahs that were exposed to high tourist abundance on average raised 0.21 ± 0.72 cubs to independence compared to 2.32 ± 0.11 cubs in low tourism areas. Neither lion nor spotted hyaena abundance had an impact on the number of cubs that were recruited.

“During the study there was no hard evidence of direct mortality caused by tourists,” such as vehicles accidentally running over cubs, Broekhuis said. “It is therefore possible that tourists have an indirect effect on cub survival by changing a cheetah’s behaviour, increasing a cheetah’s stress levels or by minimising food consumption.”

Cheetahs, especially with cubs, are a major tourist attraction and commonly attract large numbers of vehicles. In one case in the study, 64 vehicles were recorded at one cheetah sighting over a period of 2 h. High tourist numbers have been found to negatively impact cheetah hunts, or lead to a cheetah abandoning its kill.

The paper does note that while high tourist abundance has a negative impact on cheetah cub recruitment, tourism plays an important, positive role in cheetah conservation through, for example, the creation and maintenance of protected areas and wildlife conservancies and positively influencing attitudes and behavioral intentions of local people toward predators. But measures need to be taken to ensure that tourism is sustainable and doesn’t create undue levels of stress and disturbance. It is suggested that tourist vehicles at a cheetah sighting could be restricted to no more than five, vehicles should keep at a minimum distance of 30 m, vehicles should not separate mothers and cubs, and cheetahs on a kill should not be enclosed by vehicles so that they can detect approaching danger. These guidelines could be incorporated into management policies and distributed to tourists upon arrival. Rangers could then ensure the policies are upheld.

Some 35 years ago, on my first safari, I saw a pair of cheetahs abandon a hunt in the Tsavo game reserve when scores of following game viewing vehicles made it impossible for the cats to approach prey discreetly. Much as we all like to get close to such beautiful animals, a balance must be reached so that tourists do not harm populations of the wildlife we travel to see.

Journal reference: Femke Broekhuis (2018). Natural and anthropogenic drivers of cub recruitment in a large carnivore. Ecology and Evolution, doi: 10.1002/ece3.4180

Article details

  • Author(s)
  • David Simpson
  • Date
  • 27 June 2018
  • Subject(s)
  • Tourism