16 May 2017 Read: 1991
Vincent van der Merwe (34) heads up the cheetah metapopulation in South Africa. This approach to conservation began with the black rhino expansion project in 2003, then wild dogs in 2009. The cheetah metapopulation project was launched in 2011. South Africa is the only country in the world that has had an increase in these species.
Haenertsburg-born Vinny studied entomology insects, then genetics for Honours, his Masters in Conservation and his PhD will be on cheetah conservation. He studied at the University of Pretoria and began his three-year PhD in Cape Town this year.
Vinny says, “At the Endangered Wildlife Trust I manage 54 fenced reserves that hold cheetahs across South Africa. This metapopulation, a whole lot of fragmented populations, supports 334 cheetahs. Each reserve has, on average, 6 or 7 cheetahs which means inbreeding is a potential issue. My job is to relocate the cheetahs to prevent inbreeding.”
Wild cheetah occur in South Africa in three scenarios.
The metapopulation on 54 reserves.
Two huge reserves, namely KNP and Kgalagardi. KNP has 410 and Kgalagardi 200. These two areas have a large enough gene pool and don’t need to be managed.
A free roaming population of some 370 cheetah in farmlands on the border with Botswana.
Once every four years the Endangered Wildlife Trust does a public census and counts the cheetah in the KNP.
The human population in Africa has seen exponential growth for the past 13, 000 years. The problem began when we stopped being hunter/gatherers and started farming crops and livestock. Cheetah were killed when taking livestock and they have simply run out of space due to crop farming and urban development. It is our firm belief that cheetah do not belong in cages, but rather in the wild where they can do what they have being doing for thousands of years.
Vinny says, “Moral of the story is that wildlife and humans don’t coexist well. One way to deal with that is to fence the humans out and the animals in for their safety. But when you fence you limit natural gene flow. Moving the animals between the fenced populations will retain genetic integrity.”
He concluded, “As long as we manage these fragments responsibly by fencing and implementing human mediated gene flow, our wildlife will pull through the next 100 years of exponential human population on the African continent.”