“In a time when global travel has been shut down, two cheetahs have taken an international holiday without getting their passports stamped,” Panthera’s Kafue Project Manager Jake Overton puts it best when explaining this fascinating story of cheetah brothers crossing borders and uniting conservation researchers across Southern Africa.
We might be stuck at home during lockdown, but wildlife definitely isn’t. This is the story of three male cheetahs we’ve been tracking since last August. Male cheetahs can be solitary or found in coalitions of two or three that live and hunt together. Often -- but not always -- the males in a coalition are littermates that stay together after leaving their mother. These three cheetahs that have formed a coalition are most likely brothers given their young age.
We first met these cheetah brothers in August of 2019 within the Kavango–Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA); a massive conservation area spanning five countries: Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. KAZA is an ambitious initiative by these five nations to uplift community livelihoods while building a massive connected conservation landscape the size of France.
Researchers originally discovered this coalition of cheetahs when they were a trio in Nkasa Rupara National Park, Namibia. In August 2019, the three likely-brothers were around 18 months of age. We don’t know where these cheetahs were born and raised as they may have already been dispersing at the time. Scientists working with the Kwando Carnivore Program managed to immobilize and collar one of the brothers, who they call Rupara. The other two were named Nkasa and Mudumu. Mudumu had evidence of a wire snare injury to his neck but the scar had seemed to heal.
Unfortunately, sometime this winter the trio became a duo, as Mudumu disappeared from the coalition. We don’t know exactly what happened but expect that he was killed and suggest the cause was likely anthropomorphic. Maybe he was caught in another snare and did not escape this time. Snares from poachers are unfortunately quite common and cause the slow deaths of many animals including carnivores. These cheetahs also spent a lot of time around a busy road and road kills are a significant source of mortality for cheetahs.
In the following months, the coalition was tracked using Rupara’s collar as they moved within and bounced between Mudumu and Nkasa Rupara national parks in Namibia. They moved back and forth between the parks several times, selecting nice open areas and spending most of their time in places where adult cheetahs are often found in Mudumu National Park. This is what makes us believe this area could be where they were originally born.
After several months of wandering between Nkasa-Rupara and Mudumu national parks, in mid-March, when the human world was watching the COVID-19 pandemic develop, the cheetahs moved along the Kwando River and seemed to spend about a week looking for a place to cross. Finally, on March 15, they crossed the Kwando River into Botswana and over the next 10 days traveled southwest along the Selinda Spillway all the way to the Okavango Delta. They were spotted by guides in the tourism area of Vumbura before heading on to some key protected areas in northern Botswana: Kwai Conservancy Area and the Moremi Game Reserve, traveling within 35 km of the town of Maun. The brothers were seen again in late May by carnivore researchers Megan Claas and Ed Van Mourik from the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust.
Footage of the two males shows territorial behaviors including scent-marking, investigating tree bases for other scent marks and otherwise making their presence known. This indicates that they could be settling in this territory, especially since at just over two years of age, this is the normal time for them to settle down. Male cheetahs select their territory based on its value to females which have large home ranges and move through spaces, meeting up with males along the way.
We hope they do stay here because it’s a fantastic conservation area, despite being a little on the edge. This is an area of high tourism value and good for fellow researchers to continue to monitor them. We hope that following this duo will help foster additional partnerships between scientists across the region.
The story of these cheetah brothers encapsulates the true spirit of KAZA, and the vision of these five countries to maintain wildlife moving between countries in a large complex of protected areas. This story also highlights the unity of purpose of the KCCC. Using technology and communication applications, we can work together to share our experiences of these predators in real-time. These recent movements in Botswana are an exciting and important development in our research on cheetah dispersal and allow us to watch these predators in the flesh rather than just seeing them as a data point on a map. Together, conservation scientists, researchers and practitioners are using this research to foster real conservation outcomes in this remarkable transfrontier conservation area.