Counting Cheetahs: A New Approach Yields Results In The Maasai Mara

Being a cheetah researcher in Kenyas Maasai Mara, Im often asked how many cheetahs there are in the region. Its an important question, especially for conservation as it is crucial to accurately estimate population sizes and to monitor trends into the future.

In the early 1900 s it was believed that around 100,000 cheetahs wandered the earth. The most recent estimate by the International Union for Conservation of Nature puts the above figures at 6, 600 mainly in eastern and southern Africa amid were afraid that the fastest land mammal is racing to extinction. Cheetahs are now extinct in 20 countries and occupied only 17% of their historic range. The remaining populations that are of global significance are found in southern Africa Botswana, Namibia and South Africa – and in East Africa Kenya and Tanzania. Of all of these locatings least is known about cheetahs in Kenya.

We set out to address this gap by designing and conducting an intensive field survey based on search-encounters of cheetahs in the Maasai Mara National Reserve and its surrounding conservancies. Accurate estimations are important, especially when trying to determine whether a population is stable, increasing or decreasing.

But deriving written answers is more difficult than it might seem. The population size of any species is patently affected by a number of factors including births and deaths and the fact that individuals move in and out of an area.

In the case of cheetahs, there are further complications. It is unrealistic to assume that every individual is likely to be sighted during a survey. They are generally not easy to find partly because of their extensive ranging behaviour. In Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, home-ranges for both semi-nomadic females and males are around 800 km2 and in Namibia they are on average 1647 km2.

The Process Of Counting

Our research encompassed about 2400 km, an region half the size of the Great Salt Lake in the US. The data for this study were collected during a three month period. The time period was to minimise the impact of birth or deaths and immigration or emigration. Over the three months a team of five field vehicles drove 8400 km, approximately the distance from South Africas Cape Town to Gibraltar off the shores of the Spain, in search of cheetahs.

The Maasai Mara is one of the few remaining strongholds for the global cheetah population. Shutterstock

Once cheetahs were found, the necessary information, including the identity of the cheetah determined by its own unique place pattern was recorded. These data were then analysed employing an advanced Bayesian Spatially Explicit Capture Recapture model. This statistical model incorporates information on when and where a cheetah was sighted and when and where the cheetah was subsequently resighted during the survey period.

The method is more robust than those used previously because 😛 TAGEND

The spatially explicit technique utilized can recognise visiting animals from those that reside permanently within the surveyed area, avoiding potential overestimation of numbers. This can be compared to counting the population of Manhattan in the daytime, which would devote a vastly inflated figure because of the influx of passengers from neighbouring areas.

It accounts for the probability that cheetahs are considered, thereby addressing the potential problem that not every single individual in a population is likely to be seen which would underestimate the numbers.

It does not conclude results in the way that is often done in surveys based on, for example, animal tracks.

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