It has been ten years since cheetah were first introduced into Mountain Zebra National Park.
Words by Taryn Arnott. Originally published in SANParks Times.
In 2007, two male and two female cheetah became the first cheetah to roam the plains of the Eastern Cape near Mountain Zebra in 130 years.
Today cheetah tracking safaris offered in the park are a main attraction for visitors. By using telemetry equipment to track collared cheetahs, guides are able to lead visitors to experience cheetahs up-close in their natural environment
“It’s a very popular activity,” says section ranger for Mountain Zebra, Greg Bond. “Tracking happens almost daily in the park. Many visitors travel to Mountain Zebra specifically to see the cheetah while out tracking.”
“Tracking in the park gives people an insight into the world of a wild cheetah in its natural environment,” says former Mountain Zebra park manager Megan Taplin, who oversaw cheetah management in the park for five years.
There are currently two cheetahs collared in the park out of six cheetah in the park. Prey populations in the park are large enough to sustain only eight cheetah, so cheetah are often moved out of the park to other reserves.
Upon their first introduction to the park 10 years ago, the cheetah population thrived. Within their first five years in the park, 29 cheetah cubs were born.
In order to prevent these cheetah from breeding with their parents, the cubs were relocated to different reserves throughout the country.
“About 40 animals from Mountain Zebra have been relocated to other reserves over the years. The park’s cheetah population has contributed immensely to the country’s metapopulation,” says Bond.
The population in the park is managed as part of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s nationwide Cheetah Metapopulation Project, which ensures adequate genetic viability and contributes towards national initiatives to conserve the species.
Aside from offering a thrilling experience to visitors – who are able to get up close to cheetahs without invading their space – having the ability to track cheetahs in the park has also helped park teams gain invaluable information on cheetah behaviour.
“We can track which areas cheetahs use and get information on prey selected, new births and deaths, and on which areas cheetah select for their dens and general behaviour,” says Taplin. This has also given us some information on how lion and cheetah interact.
“The best aspect about cheetah tracking is that you do it on foot so you experience first-hand the terrain that the cheetah lives in and hunts in every day,” says Taplin, “It boggles the mind how a cheetah can sprint across the rock-strewn ground on Mountain Zebra and still be successful in the hunt!”