(LONDON) — Thousands of feet in the air, Willem Briers-Louw, a wildlife biologist, surveys the Zambeze Delta in Mozambique via helicopter — seeking the animal populations he helps to conserve and maintain in the bushland.
Cheetahs, one of Briers-Louw’s subjects and the fastest land animal in the world, could get a boost to its population if a new conservation method researchers are practicing in Africa is successful.
Biologists in Mozambique released a group of wild cheetahs in a “massive” protected area in the Zambeze Delta in August as part of a reintroduction project they believe is “crucial” to conserve the species, Briers-Louw, a wildlife biologist working on the project with the Cabela Family Foundation, the organization that funded the reintroduction project, told ABC News.
From the two-seat Robinson R22 helicopter, Briers-Louw can track the animals wherever they go and monitor their behavior — what they’re eating, whether they’re mating, when a litter of cubs is born. It’s one of the perks of the job, Briers-Louw said.
“Watching them at full speed chasing down [cleft-back] antelope is truly incredible to see,” he said.
The project was suggested by the foundation’s wildlife trust coordinators after a similar reintroduction for lions in the Zambeze Delta was successful, Briers-Louw said. In addition to the ample space and limited poaching in the preserve, the cheetahs are not prey for lions and have plenty of food sources to sustain a decent population.
Biologists found historical evidence that cheetahs occupied the area in the past after finding a book from 1914 described the animals, which was imperative for the reintroduction to be successful, Briers-Louw said.
Eleven cheetahs from South Africa and one from Malawi were transported to Mozambique over the summer. The big cats were stationed in a fenced area for months to get acclimated before the gates were opened to their new home, Briers-Louw said.
Two additional females, described as “valuable additions to the founder population,” were released in December. The researchers hope to maintain an interconnected conservation project where different countries work together to maintain as healthy a cheetah population as possible, Briers-Louw said.
What makes the project “novel” is the cheetahs were released into a sizable, unfenced area that could possibly support up to 100 cheetahs in the future, he added. In fenced preserves, a male cheetah looking to explore and find females is likely to hit an electric fence and turn around, Tamar Kendon, another wildlife biologist with the Cabela Family Foundation, told ABC News.
“It’s totally open, and they’re not constricted or not confined to a fenced area, so they can move pretty much wherever they want to,” Briers-Louw said. “And so we’ve seen quite a lot of exploratory movement within the first four or five months.”
The cheetahs’ newfound ability to wander causes “a bit of stress” for the researchers and presents a possibility for the need to collect them and bring them back, Kendon said.
Conservationists have been introducing cheetahs in small, fenced preserves since 1999, Briers-Louw said. Once cubs are born, they need new homes because those preserves can’t support larger populations.
“So Africa, at that time, was the only country with a growing cheetah population,” until biologists began practicing similar efforts around the world, Briers-Louw added.
All of the cheetahs seem to be thriving in their new habitat and seem to have started fixed movement areas, Briers-Louw said. The researchers track them on the ground, aerially via helicopter and through satellite imagery, which allows them to ensure they’re thriving and monitor other behaviors, such as mating, Briers-Louw said. Each cheetah is also outfitted with a GPS collar in case they move outside of the preserve, Kendon said.
Briers-Louw emphasized that it’s “not all sunshine and roses” for the health of cheetah populations around the world, and they were “strongly” on the way to extinction for the better part of two decades.
Cheetahs are currently listed as vulnerable, with their populations deceasing, on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. There are currently about 6,700 mature cheetahs in the world, according to the IUCN.
They only have about 9% of their historic range, and of that population, 30% are in protected reserves, Briers-Louw said. The main threats facing cheetahs are habitat loss, fragmentation of habitat and poaching, but they are also at risk of becoming trapped in snares placed for bushmeat, Kendon said.
The Zambeze Delta historically contained thousands of animals, but years of armed conflict and poaching led to a sharp decline of wildlife in the area, Briers-Louw said. While the Zambeze Delta has experienced a massive resurgence in animal populations in recent years, poaching still remains the biggest threat to carnivores in the region.
But the conservationists believe they are at a turning point where wildlife can once again thrive.
“Even though poaching is the biggest threat to the carnivores, we are at the point where it’s fairly controlled and limited to the point where it shouldn’t have any effect on the population,” he said.
ABC News’ Morgan Winsor contributed to this report.
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