Not only are carnivores critical to the long-term viability of ecosystems, their presence is also a strong indicator of healthy prey populations. As they face a combination of threats — retaliatory killings by livestock keepers, declining prey base, habitat decline and human conflict — conserving ecologically viable and functional populations of large carnivores in their natural habitats is paramount but challenging.
Large carnivores require extensive wild areas which are becoming increasingly rare on the African continent. Focusing on four species that are the most intrinsically vulnerable and the most impacted by external threats, African Wildlife Foundation protects priority populations of lion, cheetah, African wild dog, and Ethiopian wolf throughout Africa.
In Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park and its environs, AWF supports Painted Dog Conservation’s efforts to protect about 150 African wild dogs and an estimated 600 lions. Increased anti-poaching patrols and capacity building within and outside the national park have resulted in the removal of snares and allowed rangers to apprehend poachers and destroy poacher camps.
From 2001 and 2016, a total of 34,333 snares were recovered. Estimates indicate that approximately 10 percent of snares placed in the bush result in the killing of wildlife; thus, approximately 3,433 animal lives were saved through de-snaring initiatives over those years. Notably, 256 poachers were arrested in the same period.
However, the African wild dog and other species are increasingly facing a new threat – cyanide poisoning. The wild dog’s current population is estimated to be 6,600 in 39 sub-populations. They have experienced the second most extreme range reduction of all large carnivores and have become extinct in 25 of their 39 former ranges.
Although the population at Hwange is now considerably stable, poaching pressure continues to escalate, necessitating persistent efforts in this landscape. Under favorable circumstances, wild dogs have been found to coexist very well with man. They rarely kill cattle in locations where wild prey is present, even if at relatively low density.
The cheetah population has declined by over 30 percent in the last 15 years to a current estimated 6,674 individuals and has lost 89 percent of their historic range. They have become extinct in 13 range states in the last 50 years, and are estimated to occupy only about 17 percent of their historical range in southern Africa and only 6 percent in eastern Africa.
Large connecting cheetah populations are now restricted to fragmented woodland savannahs across both regions. The two biggest threats are habitat loss and human-carnivore conflict. Cheetah are also vulnerable to predation from other large carnivores and tend to avoid high lion density areas. Apart from their high genetic homogeneity making them particularly vulnerable to disease, they are trafficked for spotted skin coats for the fashion industry and as exotic pets and status symbols in the Middle East.
Lions, on the other hand, are more resilient carnivores and a significant source of economic benefits through tourism. However, they are also major predators of domestic livestock and occasionally attack local people for which they are killed.
Through a species protection grant to the Mara Lion and Cheetah Project in Maasai Mara, AWF is strengthening the conservation of cheetah and lion populations estimated at 54 and 363 respectively. The project collects high-quality data through monitoring and identification that informs threat-abating management throughout the entire ecosystem. Through its comprehensive community program which includes community education and school outreach, the project has reduced the number of cheetahs and lions lost in the landscape.
Along with feline predators, AWF continues to support the conservation of Africa’s most endangered canid – the Ethiopian wolf – of which only about 450 individuals remain in the wild in Ethiopia. The main populations occur in Bale Mountains National Park and Simien Mountains National Park as the species is restricted to the grasslands and heathlands at 3,000-4,000m being highly dependent on high altitude afroalpine rodents.
AWF has supported the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme to expand conservation activities to Simien Mountains National Park, home to a population of about 75 wolves. In partnership with the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority, local community members were selected and trained as monitors and wolf ambassadors.
Population fragmentation is not the only threat for the wolves. Canine distemper virus caused an average decline of 52 percent of the adult wolf population and rabies outbreaks continue to be another key mortality cause. At Bale Mountains in the north, the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme recently addressed a rabies outbreak that killed about 30 wolves. Vaccinations of both the wolves and domestic dogs have been done to avert such incidents in the future.
AWF will continue to build partnerships to ensure a future for Africa’s carnivores and their ecosystems. As a member of professional organizations such as the IUCN Species Specialist Groups, AWF contributes its experiences and lessons to the conservation community and advises the respective governments – multiplying the impact of its work on the ground and internationally.
Nathan Gichohi is Manager, Species Protection at African Wildlife Foundation. As a conservation biologist, he works on more than 40 species protection projects, focusing mainly on rhinos, elephants, and large carnivores, in AWF’s priority landscapes. Nathan is also Project Manager of the Biosphere Reserves as Model Regions for Anti-poaching in Africa (BRAPA) and collaborates with multiple stakeholders to understand the dynamics of poaching across critical biodiversity hotspots in sub-Saharan Africa.
AWF Blogs bring you to the critical landscapes we work in, where conservation benefits both wildlife and people alike. The blogs are written by our staff - men and women who have dedicated their lives to Africa's wildlife, people and wild lands.