N/a’an ku sê & Chester Zoo’s help vital in tracking big cats across Africa

by Mar 23, 2010Big Cats

Namibia’s N/a’an ku sê Sanctuary and the UK’s Chester Zoo are helping develop a pioneering new method of identifying cheetahs in the wild by archiving their paw prints on an international database, similar to the way fingerprints can be stored for humans.

The footprint identification technique (FIT) for endangered species has already been a boon in monitoring other big cats including Bengal tigers and African lions, and is being developed for other endangered and elusive species ranging from Polar bears in the Arctic to the dormouse in the UK!

FIT is a non-invasive and cost-effective method of identifying, and therefore monitoring these species, and because it does not involve any handling or disturbance to the animal it is free of the potentially harmful side-effects of more invasive techniques.

Now zoologist Sky Alibhai and vet Zoe Jewell of Portugal based WildTrack (www.wildtrack.org), the independent research organisation developing FIT, believe it could help monitor cheetahs, one of the world’s threatened species. The technology works on a similar basis to human fingerprinting; no two cheetah footprints are the same. The research team say N/a’an ku sê’s and Chester Zoo’s input is vital and will benefit the cheetah conservation community across Africa.

Florian Weise, co-ordinator with N/a’an ku sê Research Programme, said: “Ours and Chester Zoo’s support is crucial in getting enough footprints from known reference cheetah for us to be able to construct a software system that can then be tested with wild cheetah footprints.”

Florian has recorded the foot prints of six cheetahs so far – Aiko, Kiki, Aisha, Vasco, Samira and Chiquita. Florian said: “It’s great to be able to use these captive cheetahs who sadly cannot be released for purposes of conservation research that will benefit the future of all cheetah.

The overall aim is to test whether free-roaming cheetah can be identified from their footprints. If this is the case we can build a non-invasive monitoring technique for cheetah populations. It is extremely important because you can never catch and collar all cheetah to find out about their population size and structure, their interactions and how the population changes over time.”

Chester Zoo keepers are currently photographing and recording footprints of its four cheetahs, three males – Burba, Singa, and Matrah – and a female called Kinky Tail. The footprints will be logged to help build up a reference base against which further prints can be compared.

By photographing footprints in the wild researchers can monitor an animal’s movements even without having caught sight of it.

Many Namibian cheetahs are in danger of being killed as they stray out of conservation zones and onto commercial land where they risk persecution by farmers who fear they will attack livestock.

If proven viable, it is hoped these improved tracking methods, along with better communication and education of farmers, and relocation of any problem animals, will be a huge aid to international conservation efforts. N/a’an ku sê are also thrilled that Chester Zoo is paying for two special collars for cheetahs in the wild to allow their movements to be tracked electronically.

The initial work is also being supported by Chester Zoo’s conservation department and Roger Wilkinson, Head of Field Programmes and Research, said: “We are involved in outreach conservation activities that complement our conservation work in the zoo; this is work which helps many different species.

“The cheetah project further strengthens our support for Cheetah conservation at home and abroad. This is a very worthwhile project looking at long term strategies to reduce conflict between cheetahs and land owners.”