While protected areas are generally designed to be safe havens, unchecked human pressures can have a negative impact,’ says zoologist Femke Broekhuis, lead author of a new study by the University of Oxford that has raised questions about levels of tourism in protected areas.
The study focused on female cheetahs and their litters in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. Cheetahs have litters of one to six cubs, few of which make it to adulthood. The study claims that the predator's already low cub survival rate is made even worse by tourist pressure. It found that one or no cubs survived to adulthood in tourist-prone areas, while an average of two cubs survived in areas with low levels of tourism.
The higher mortality rate is likely to be caused by poor food supplies for the cubs. ‘Cheetahs, especially those with cubs, are a major tourist attraction and commonly attract large numbers of vehicles,’ says Broekhuis. ‘High tourist numbers have been found to negatively impact cheetah hunts, and even if a hunt is successful, the presence of tourists can result in a cheetah abandoning its kill.’
Cheetah numbers are already being squeezed. Predation from lions and hyenas as well as habitat reduction means the big cats have experienced drastic population decline. In fact, their numbers are thought to have halved in Kenya in the past 40 years to around 7,000 individuals. They have also disappeared from 91 per cent of their historic range.
While Broekhuis is eager to stress the positive role of conservation, she also admits the results are ‘worrying’ and suggests a number of changes in the conservation parks – such as stricter limits on the number of cars allowed near the animals, and bans on approaching known cheetah lairs. ‘Growth rates for cheetahs inside the protected areas need to be high if they are to compensate for declines outside of them,’ she concludes.
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