Botswana’s policy of zero tolerance for poaching and illegal hunting has given it the reputation of valuing wildlife conservation. But an increase in human-wildlife conflict in recent years appears to undermine those conservation efforts.
Of particular concern is an apparent “shoot-to-kill” stance by livestock farmers against cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) in Ghanzi district — something conservationists hope to de-escalate with the help of remote-monitoring technology.
Cheetahs on private lands
Much of Botswana’s cheetah habitat has been lost to private farmland, leaving the cats in close proximity to farmers. Their tendency to hunt during the day makes them vulnerable to killing by farmers and being blamed even for livestock kills they didn’t make.
“Multiple studies across the cheetah’s range have shown that cheetahs preferentially kill wild animals over livestock,” Lorraine Boast, a researcher with Cheetah Conservation Botswana (CCB), a nonprofit, told Mongabay.
In her doctoral thesis exploring human-predator conflict on game ranches in Botswana, Boast said camera-trap surveys on Ghanzi farms were crucial, given that cheetahs are thought to cause the biggest economic losses to game ranches in the country. Cheetahs have disappeared from more than 90 percent of their historical range and their global population numbers fewer than 7,000 mature individuals.
To better understand cheetah movements on commercial farmland in Botswana, Boast and fellow CCB researchers estimated their distribution and abundance by surveying the cats with remote cameras and spoor (droppings, scratches and other signs of their presence). The researchers consider these two methods less invasive and more cost-effective than tracking and directly observing cheetahs and other wide-ranging species that live at low densities. The survey techniques are also repeatable and increasingly more accurate.
“Cheetahs occur at low densities and can be difficult to spot, making camera traps an excellent tool to monitor this elusive species,” Boast said.
“Additionally, camera traps being remotely operated enable researchers to monitor animals without habituating them to human presence. Avoiding habituation to humans is especially important in farming areas, as predators are at risk of persecution from humans for killing livestock, or more often due to the farmers’ perception that they will kill livestock.”
One farmer was shown to have killed at least 30 cheetahs in a two-month period on his family’s Ghanzi district farm, according to CCB. CCB’s engagement and awareness coordinator, Jane Horgan, said incidents like these prompted her team to use camera traps to allay the farmers’ fears that their farms could be overrun by cheetahs.
Horgan said that by repeatedly killing cheetahs, the farmer was inadvertently attracting more cheetahs to the area to claim the newly vacated territory. The CCB team placed camera traps at a well-used cheetah marking tree to identify individual spot patterns on cheetahs to help the farmer understand how many cheetahs were on his farm. The CCB team first convinced the farmer to stop trapping at the tree where they put up cameras.
“We would check the cameras on [a] monthly basis, show the [farmer] all the photos and keep him updated on cheetah activity,” Horgan said.
“Once we put the cameras up, a male cheetah moved onto the farm and claimed the territory. The cheetah then held that territory for the next four years, keeping other cheetahs out of the area.”
Horgan said using the cameras and being able to identify individual cheetahs through spot patterns — as unique to the cats as fingerprints are to humans — could help farmers understand that they are not overrun with cheetahs, as some believe.
“Cheetahs are diurnal, and farmers see them more often than other carnivores,” Horgan said. “Farmers can become paranoid and think there are many of them on their farms, whereas they are likely to be seeing the same cheetahs over and over again.”
Using the cameras, they were able to show the Ghanzi farmer that by leaving one cheetah on his farm to hold the territory, he was actually reducing the number of cheetahs there and reducing the conflict.
“So far as we know, the farmer never shot cheetahs again,” Horgan said.
Above are images caught on camera courtesy of www.cheetahconservationbotswana.org
Camera trapping on private lands
CCB researchers have previously used image data from remotely operated camera traps to determine which species are present in an area, estimate their numbers, and monitor behaviour and social interactions. And for species like cheetahs, whose individuals can be recognised by their unique markings or coat patterns, the researchers have applied capture-recapture methods to determine population trends in the area over time.
Nevertheless, using camera trap data to estimate population density requires repeated access to the farm over a long period of time, Boast said,
“so that tends to only be possible with farmers who are willing to accept carnivore researchers — which normally means they are relatively predator friendly.”
Giving farmers information about the species can help them appreciate the animals more and become more interested in their survival, Boast said.
“Sharing data with communities, including naming cheetahs and giving regular updates of the individual, can create a more personal relationship with the individual animal and the overall species, which may promote greater tolerance to their presence and less persecution.”
Using the cameras to monitor population densities, Horgan said, enables the team to keep tabs on how Botswana’s cheetah population is surviving over time.
“This allows us to monitor and evaluate the success of our own programs, as our primary goal is to preserve Botswana’s cheetah population,” she said.
Horgan said CCB had also explored the use of cameras for human-wildlife conflict mitigation. In some cases, Horgan said, the cameras, especially older models that use white flashes for nighttime photos, can be used as direct deterrents. CCB has placed these cameras near livestock corrals, known locally as kraals, to detect the movement of predators at night.
“We have used flash cameras to deter brown hyenas and leopards from kraals where they were predating on livestock,” Horgan said.
Boast said camera traps could be deployed at sites chosen randomly or, as in the case of her research, in areas where the target species (in this case, cheetahs) was likely to be seen. For example, Horgan said, to conduct behavioural research at cheetah marking trees, the cameras should be placed facing the trees.
In her 2009-2010 study of large predators in Botswana farmlands, Boast mounted most of the 26 cameras on trees and wooden poles along the road, areas that are likely to be used by various predator species, including both male and female cheetahs of all age classes, except two sites where cameras were put up at a cheetah marking tree and water trough. The specific sites had shown cheetah signs, including sightings of the animals or cheetah spoor.
Cameras are often placed facing each other to capture both sides of the animal, which helps researchers identify it and provides redundancy in case of camera failure. Offsetting opposing cameras by 1 to 2 meters (3 to 6 feet), Boast said in her thesis, can prevent interference from opposing camera flashes.
Understand predator movements
Horgan said the camera trap images repeatedly showed several species, including spotted hyenas, servals, civets and elephants, outside of their documented ranges. Her team has passed this information on to the authorities, who have updated their range maps.
In her camera-trap study, Boast detected 37 species of wild mammals on commercial farms in the Ghanzi area, a higher diversity than expected. Black jackals were the most abundant predator, followed by brown hyenas, caracals, cheetahs and leopards. For rare or more persecuted predator species, such as lions or African wild dogs, Boast said in her thesis, their presence in the camera-trap pictures could be part of a conservation payment system to help build tolerance for carnivores outside protected areas. She said Botswana could benefit from applying a conservation performance payment system, used elsewhere.
In Sweden, farmers are paid for every grey wolf or wolverine den documented on their property. In Mexico, ranchers are compensated if camera traps on their properties reveal the presence of jaguars, pumas or ocelots. The images have also confirmed that cheetahs are highly mobile.
“Camera trap studies demonstrate that cheetahs move large distances, sometimes 40+ km [25 miles] in a day, over several farms with different owners,” Boast said.
“This long-distance travel highlights not only their vulnerability to human persecution, as they are often exposed to many different farmers, but also [that] there may not be as many individuals as people initially think, as the cheetah seen today on one farm may be the same one seen [earlier] several farms away.”
“Although cheetah populations worldwide have halved since the year 2000 to only 7,100 individuals… Botswana’s cheetah population has remained stable at around 1,700 individuals,” Horgan said.
“If it wasn’t for camera traps, we would not have such an accurate estimate of cheetah numbers in Botswana.”
Demonstrating the long-distance movements of cheetahs probably helped alter perceptions that cheetahs sit on one farm, Boast said,
“But I’m not sure it altered other perceptions, for example that there are too many cheetahs, or that all cheetahs kill livestock.
“Changing humans perceptions of predators is a long-term process that requires multiple efforts from different angles.”