Think of it as an “eco” challenge for uniquely modern times.
Recent research by Oxford University shows what wildlife behavioural scientists have long suspected — and told anyone who will listen. Namely: Unchecked, unregulated wildlife tourism can be detrimental to those animals most vulnerable to having their hunting and breeding cycles disrupted by swarms of safari vehicles all jostling to get an ideal position from which to get that perfect picture.
The four-year study, authored by Oxford zoologist Dr. Femke Broekhuis from 2013-2017, focused on cheetahs in Kenya’s world-renowned Maasai Mara National Reserve, site of the annual wildebeest migration that moves through the protected wilderness area every July, August and September.
(The rest of the year, the migration winds its way through the larger, more expansive Serengeti National Park, across the border in Tanzania.) The Mara, as Kenya’s part of the park is known to locals and area residents alike, is especially popular with overseas tourists because Kenya is more conducive than its neighbour to mass tourism, thanks to better facilities, more competitive pricing.
Also, the aptly named Mara River, for which the reserve is named, provides the sight of yearly “river crossings,” featuring some 1.3 million wildebeest in total, which in turns acts as a magnet for the reserve’s resident predators, including big cats like lions, leopards and cheetahs.
Most predators are nocturnal, but cheetahs are diurnal, meaning they hunt during the day.
Cheetahs are easily intimidated, because of their light build — they’re built for speed, as befitting nature’s fastest land mammal — and show a tendency to flee from a perceived threat rather than stand and fight. Lions will kill cheetahs whenever they can, as nature has conditioned lions to see cheetahs as competition for a finite supply of food. Cheetah cubs are especially vulnerable, as they’re born basically defenceless.
Cub mortality is exceedingly high among cheetahs — it’s one reason they have such large litters — but it’s especially high in the wide, flat, short-grass savannahs of East Africa, where the very terrain that makes it easy for cheetahs to find and chase down food also makes them vulnerable to being spotted by other predators.
The crisis comes when too many tourists — Broekhuis’ study cited as many as 30 vehicles crowding around a single cheetah at the same time during one sighting — disrupts a cheetah’s hunting pattern.
If a mother cheetah doesn’t make a kill during daylight hours, the time when tourist vehicles are most active — obviously — she may starve.
Also, because cheetahs often have their kill stolen by larger, more aggressive predators, including hyenas, large numbers of tourist vehicles crowded together often sends a signal to other predators that an easy meal may be in the offing. Cheetahs may even be intimidated by packs of jackals or vultures in large enough number.
Since even a slight injury to a leg is tantamount to a death sentence for an animal that relies on speed to chase down food, nature has conditioned cheetahs to back down rather than stand and fight. The hungrier a cheetah is, however, the more it might be inclined to take foolish risks, especially if hunting has been hard and it has cubs to feed.
“Studies from about 10 years ago by the Kenya Wildlife Service showed an average of 19 vehicles,” Dr. Laurie Marker, founder and director of the Namibia-based Cheetah Conservation Fund (https://cheetah.org) told Dispatches in a Facebook message. “So, yes, this is very bad for cheetahs.”
None of this is new to anyone who has studied cheetahs in the wild, or even read about them and seen them in animal documentaries. What makes the Oxford study different, though, is that this time researchers have hard numbers to back up their claims.
The study found that the average number of cubs raised to independent adulthood in the Maasai Mara was just 0.2 cubs per litter, meaning a mother cheetah in the Mara would have to give birth to five litters just to raise a single cub to adulthood. The average birth-to-adult success rate in more remote, less heavily touristed wilderness areas is 2.3 cubs per litter.
The Maasai Mara is renowned for its big cat populations; it’s one of the reasons so many tourists choose that park over any other. The Mara has been featured in countless TV documentaries, and provided the setting for BBC-TV’s popular Big Cat Diary series, which followed specific family groups of lions, leopards and cheetahs every year over a period of a dozen years between 1996 and 2008, creating a snapshot view of individual cats’ entire life cycles, from birth to death.
Big Cat Diary promoted and popularized the Maasai Mara as a travel destination for wildlife enthusiasts, more so than any other park in Africa, including the Serengeti and South Africa’s world famous — but very different — Kruger National Park.
Broekhuis is enough of a realist — and honest enough — to know that wildlife tourism does a great deal to help endangered animals, especially icon species like cheetahs. Catching even a glimpse of a cheetah in the wild is a more stirring and profound experience than a lifetime of seeing them in zoos. One of the more overlooked, less-reported unintended side effects of wildlife tourism, especially in Africa’s magnificent game parks, is that it can shape a child or young person’s outlook and future career choice for life.
The question, Broekhuis argues, is not whether tourism is a benefit or a hazard, but a matter of degree.
The Maasai Mara is popular for a reason, but 64 vehicles over a two-hour period — the most vehicles Broekhuis recorded at a single cheetah sighting during her four-year study — is untenable.
Broekhuis says the solution is strict viewing guidelines and enforcement of the rules, whether it’s a ban on off-road driving (in effect in the Mara, and in virtually every other official national park on the African continent) a limit on the number of vehicles around a cheetah at any one time (Broekuis recommends five) at a minimum distance of 30 metres.
The study’s timing could not be more apt: July, just days away, is the beginning of high season in the Mara.