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Environmental Influence

The need for speed in cheetah conservation

The world’s fastest mammal is heading towards extinction. PhD candidate David Thuo believes that understanding their population structures and diets may be key to protecting the species.

Cheetah’s are an iconic animal of the African plains, but their numbers are rapidly decreasing with only 7100 remaining in the wild as of 2016. To make matters worse, it’s expected that their numbers may decline an additional 53 per cent over the next 15 years.

While there are several reasons for their rapid decline in numbers, human conflict is one of the main causes of death for cheetahs. Local land owners believe that the big cats pose a threat to their domestic livestock. As a result, cheetahs are often hunted and killed, exacerbating their already precarious existence.

However, David believes that cheetahs may not actually be the culprit when it comes to killing livestock. To prove this, he undertook fieldwork in Kenya and collected the scats of cheetahs to determine their diet and assess their health and population structures.

In collaboration with the Mara Predator Conservation Programme and the Kenya Wildlife Trust, David is using novel genetic tools to test faecal samples and see whether livestock form part of their diet.

"We will be doing data analysis on the samples to see what cheetahs are feeding on and whether there’s actually livestock in there," he said.

Cultivating a passion for conservation

For David, his research exemplifies a much broader passion of his for conservation. Having completed his master’s research monitoring black rhinos, he wanted to continue pursuing research which contributes to helping endangered wildlife.

"It’s always been my goal to work with carnivores and it’s been such a good opportunity to work with cheetahs and with endangered species," he said. "My main research interest is to work with endangered animals and develop methods on how to understand their genetic status."

David hopes that his research will be used for education and to encourage locals to protect cheetahs.

I’m hoping my research will prove that cheetahs aren’t involved in the killing of livestock, so then we go back to the community and show them that cheetahs are not responsible and minimise human-wildlife conflicts.

Understanding cheetah’s population structures

In addition to his research on diet, David has also been taking tissue samples to develop a high-resolution genetic tool that can be used to differentiate cheetahs and assess their population structures.

"Another aspect of my research is to look at the genetic diversity of cheetahs, because most of them have a low genetic pool. They are almost identical and highly inbred," he said. "I want to see what the genetic status of cheetahs is like in Kenya: Is it healthy? Will we lose it at some point?"

"We want to see whether there are any differentiations in population structures and then we can choose which individuals to translocate."

Although there is still a way to go with his research – because of a lack of faecal samples – David hopes that his research will help deliver sustainable solutions in areas of conservation concern.

"Nothing is currently known about the genetic status of cheetahs, so our end goal would be to contribute to this knowledge."

Words by Alyssia Tennant

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