Rebecca Klein, second from leftRebecca Klein is project coordinator of Cheetah Conservation Botswana and became interested in starting up a cheetah program having moved to Botswana to work at Mokolodi Nature Reserve. Upon discovering that there was no conservation going on for the regularly persecuted and endangered cheetah, she teamed up with Dr Kyle Good and in October 2003 formed CCB, based in Jwana Game Park in Jwaneng, located in the Southern Kalahari. CCB's first task was a status and distribution assessment of the cheetah population, so as to identify the highest priority areas in which to focus measures that addressed the issue of livestock vs predator conflict. The major challenge for the project, funded by grant aid and donor support, is one of improving community perceptions towards predators and ensuring that retaliatory killings do not continue to threaten cheetah numbers, while, at the same time, supporting and protecting rural community welfare.
Rebecca has a degree in Wildlife Biology from Leeds University, UK and has experience in a wide range of conservation projects worldwide including in both Malaysia and Thailand.
Cheetah Conservation Botswana can be found here: www.cheetahbotswana.com
After receiving your degree in Wildlife Biology from Leeds University in the U.K how did you become involved in wildlife conservation and namely working with Cheetahs?
A degree does not assure you a career these days, so I did a lot of volunteering in order to gain experience. I worked on several conservation projects in the UK as a volunteer. Then went to Malaysia volunteering for Malaysian Nature Trust. Then to Thailand to work on a gibbon reintroduction project through Wild Animal Rescue. However, I had lived in East Africa when I was younger and wanted to return to Africa. So sent my CV to many places in Africa and ended up volunteering at Mokolodi Nature Reserve at their wildlife rehabilitation centre. Here I cared for 2 cheetah brothers orphaned due to predator/farmer conflict. I learnt more about this issue in Botswana and realised a conservation program was urgently needed to preserve this endangered species nationally. A proposal was sent out, a lot of positive support and a little funding came in. I was joined by Dr Kyle Good and Ann Marie Houser and CCB begun. For me, although I’ve always loved cats, I never had a favourite animal. I simply wanted to be involved in the conservation of endangered species and habitats. Those that are in danger of being lost tomorrow. The cheetah is a wonderful flagship species to represent the Kalahari ecosystem, its wildlife, habitat and vanishing culture.
How easy was it initially relocating from England to Botswana? What bureaucracy did you encounter setting up Cheetah Conservation Botswana and how much is your research work appreciated by authorities now four years after commencing?
I left the UK when I was 2 years old and thanks to adventurous parents, lived in some interesting countries including Somalia. So I had been lucky to have experienced Africa already and I felt very at home. Setting up CCB was very challenging in many ways but the Botswana government were supportive and we became a registered charity in 2003. There were a lot of forms to complete and red tape but nothing unreasonable for this type of thing. Getting enough funding to start was the most difficult part and ensuring there will be funds to continue is always a concern, especially for a new project with no successes to prove your worth! Luckily, a few organisations took a chance and provided seed funding. I'm happy to say we have not let them down!
What is Cheetah Conservation Botswana: its immediate objectives and how do you intend to pursue these aims?
- To maintain in coexistence with the people, viable populations of cheetahs with a strong gene pool, as an integral part of the ecosystems of Botswana.
- To study the behaviours and habitat requirements of Botswana’s cheetah.
- To promote methods of livestock management and predator control which facilitate coexistence with predators, encouraging communities and government to integrate such methods into their farm management policies.
- To conduct education programmes aimed at building awareness among farmers, educators, students and the general public of the plight of cheetah and their role in healthy ecosystems. Overall, encouraging rural communities to manage their wildlife resources sustainably.
Scientific Research in order to assess cheetah status, distribution, behaviour, habitat needs, prey selection, disease and genetic status and interactions with farming communities. This is done via telemetry studies on individual cheetah, spoor/track surveys, faecal analysis, blood sampling, sightings database for national census and to monitor trends in cheetah populations.
This data is essential to further understand the threatened populations of cheetahs in Botswana. Little research has been done in the past and an understanding of the behaviour, habitat needs and threats to the cheetah are vital in order to come up with an effective management plan for the species. All reports are provided to the Department of Wildlife and National Parks for integration into the National Predator Management Strategy. As well as, regional and international cheetah interest groups via the Global Cheetah Forum.
Community Outreach to investigate the population status and distribution of the cheetah on farmlands in this area. Investigating specifically the role of cheetah in predator / livestock conflicts and methods of control utilised. This information helps in determining areas of high cheetah / livestock conflict and which methods communities are currently utilising, providing a vital insight into what actions need to be taken to facilitate coexistence. Site visits are made throughout Botswana to farms, cattle posts and villages. An interview survey is conducted at each site, detailing information on socio-economic factors, farm details, current management techniques, predator sightings, conflict incidences and community perceptions.
Information is distributed to communities via Farmers Associations and village networks. A Predator Forum newsletter has been started to distribute information on successful methods and encourage active involvement from the community in the generation of new ideas and potential solutions. Workshops at relevant centres are scheduled every 2 months to bring farmers together to discuss techniques and methods. Training workshops are carried out for Problem Animal Control officers of the Wildlife Department. As well as these larger workshops, a mobile workshop is taken into villages and outlying communities by community outreach officers. Teaching communities how to identify different predators and signs so that appropriate management methods can be implemented to decrease likelihood of conflict and facilitate coexistence.
Education and Awareness Raising to raise the status of cheetahs and predators in the perceptions of local communities. Currently, community perceptions are very negative and cheetahs are viewed as a pest to be removed and without any form of value. There is a strong need to raise awareness of the plight of cheetah and other predators. This program explains predators’ roles in healthy ecosystems and reasons to preserve species and overall biodiversity. Awareness raising is done through school visits, workshops, materials distributed, articles in newspapers and magazines, radio shows, documentaries, etc. Also, we have teamed up with a well known traditional dance and theatre group to produce a film which will be shown nationwide. A vital aspect of the awareness raising, is the school education program, teaching the youth of communities the importance of predators and encourage them to see cheetahs as a national resource and part of the spirit of the Kalahari. This is done via Mokolodi Education Centre which sees over 12,000 children each year, as well as direct visits to schools, throughout Botswana. Teacher training workshops are held four times a year at regional centres. These train teachers in how to use predators as a learning tool and maximising conservation education.
How is Cheetah Conservation Botswana funded, what are its annual expenses and how can one provide financial assistance?
CCB is funded from many sources particularly international conservation organisations. Wildlife Conservation Network www.wildnet.org is one of our biggest supporters, as well as the Howard Buffet Foundation and several zoos. Locally, Debswana and Global Environment Facility Small Grants Program have been very supportive. A full list can be found on our website.
In such a short time frame is your work making a noticeable difference to the cheetah’s existence in Botswana? How?
Even though CCB is a relatively young project it has made some great headway. CCB has brought a lot of awareness and interest into the cheetah and predator situation in Botswana and provides reasonable options to the current status quo. We have been working in communities that have never received any predator education and people have been very welcoming and supportive. The majority of people don’t know cheetah are endangered and have incredible potential as a natural resource for the nation. By improving perceptions and increasing awareness about the benefits of healthy ecosystems and intact wildlife populations, this is the key to cheetah survival. CCB has also been carrying out the first focused cheetah research to provide baseline information on numbers and distribution, this will enable trends to be effectively monitored over time and allow informed species management strategies to be developed.
You state on the website “Despite being listed as a species threatened with extinction by… CITES, no formalised studies have been done and little is known about the status of the cheetah in Botswana.” From your initial work how many cheetahs do you estimate to exist within the country and what are the major threats to their existence there?
It’s estimated at approx 2000 cheetah. These are concentrated in the Kalahari ecosystem to the South and West of Botswana, with higher densities in areas absent of lion and spotted hyena. (see Cheetah Country Status Report www.cheetahbotswana.com/downloads.) Their biggest threats are conflict with livestock farming communities and illegal trade.
You are based in the Jwaneng Game Reserve in the Southern Kalahari, 169km from Gaborone: with so few people working in Cheetah Conservation Botswana the extent of your work and research must be extremely limited: how can you see your influence in Botswana growing in the next five years and likewise what goals are you setting for that period and how will you achieve them?
CCB has a small but effective team. Of course, more funding can employ more people and that’s always the limiting factor. However, to increase effectiveness we partner with several organizations. Such as the Department of Wildlife and National Parks. CCB holds training workshops for their Problem Animal Control Officers. Also, CCB holds teacher training workshops to teach how to promote predator conservation in schools. By positive collaborations and educating the educators we can reach further and wider than we could alone.
How do you interact with other cheetah conservation agencies such as The Cheetah Conservation Trust and The De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Trust? Is a combined global approach to the preservation of the species the best way forward or is it better to identify each individual country’s requirements and deal with the question on a more localised level?
Both are valid. It is a necessity to work together with other organisations and share information and ideas. All recognized cheetah groups are part of the Global Cheetah Forum which meets regionally once every 2 years to set strategy and share experience. However, every country has slightly different requirements therefore, each needs to be considered individually as part of the greater whole.
How were you first accepted by both the local people and farmers of Botswana and how, in the intervening years, have attitudes changed towards your activities?
Communities have always been welcoming and interested. Of course, it can cause quite a lot of heated debates to talk about coexisting with predators and people do get emotional. But CCB always maintains we are here to support the communities as well as cheetah conservation and that approach has gone along away into the project being accepted. Obviously, the longer the project remains and the more successful activities can be shown, then the more respect it gains and the more government will consider working with you.
With tourism providing a large annual income for Botswana why do N.G.O’s such as Cheetah Conservation Botswana take responsibility for wildlife conservation and not the government? In fact how much input does the government have with regard to wildlife conservation in the country on a whole?
What can I say………..The Botswana government has a strong focus on wildlife conservation and very much takes responsibility. The difficulty is in that the cattle industry is also extremely important in Botswana so the government has to tread a fine line in order to keep the peace between these 2 sectors. A policy that’s positive for wildlife many not be so for cattle and vice versa.
Of course, NGO’s are always useful as can operate with less politics involved than government.
Farmers see the cheetah as a threat to livestock: do they kill cheetahs on sight whether or not there has been livestock loss? Surely as human encroachment increases upon the reserves such instances will only increase. What is the best way to prevent this conflict from occurring?
There is a huge range of farmers. Some farmers will kill predators on their farm simply because they are present. Others will only do so if there is a livestock loss. Others will accept the loss as part of farming in wild areas. However, the majority tends towards a generally negative attitude towards predators, particularly cheetah and wild dog. This conflict is increasing over time as commercial cattle operations expand. The best solution is the use of responsible farming methods. Effective livestock management techniques such as kraaling, herding, proper use of livestock guarding animals can considerably decrease the likelihood of loss occurring. Use of calving seasons and grazing management can also decrease predator loss, improve herd fertility and weaning rates, decrease disease, prevent overgrazing and more. Ultimately, understanding the productivity of the land and ensuring it is utilised sustainably provide ongoing benefits from veldt health to conserving wildlife populations.
There are schemes that I know of in Kenya, namely managed by the Mara Conservancy and The Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust (amongst others) which seek to reimburse the Maasai and farmers for livestock lost to predation: can you envisage a similar scheme working in Botswana with the cheetahs?
The government currently has a compensation scheme so there is no requirement for CCB to go down that road at present. Compensation is a great debate and it can be seen as paying for bad livestock management, as people see livestock loss as someone else’s’ responsibility when it should be seen as everyone’s individual requirement to care for their property. However, community run compensation schemes as you mention above can be effective.
Do you actually care for any cheetahs at your research station and if so how do you prevent them from becoming habituated to humans so as to be able to release them into the wild at a later date?
CCB does take orphaned cheetah when necessary. They stay at enclosures at Jwana Game Park. Cheetahs are notoriously easy to habituate so we have to be very careful to keep human contact to a minimum. People are kept away from these enclosures and they are covered with shade cloth to prevent visual sighting of humans. Noise is kept to a minimum and they are fed by means of guillotines to they do not see food coming from humans. However, predators are complex and intelligent animals so a certain amount of habituation is inevitable and with a rehabilitated cheetah you must think very carefully where to release that animal, considering presence of resident cheetah, other predators, prey populations, proximity to farming communities, etc. A rehabilitated predator would ideally be released in a large predator fenced reserve where monitoring could take place and a certain degree of protection ensured. Unfortunately, we don’t have any of these fenced areas in Botswana at present.
When relocating cheetahs to another area, how do they adapt to their new surroundings and do they quickly integrate into the new environment?
We have not done enough studies on this to say anything definite here, as it depends on a huge range of factors. However, quite often they will return to their initial home range so the wisdom of relocation is highly debatable. We currently have satellite collars on order to be placed on translocated cats that are moved into the Central Kalahari Game Reserve to see how they do and answer some of the questions you have pointed out.
CCB does not endorse relocation. We encourage people to rather not disrupt predator populations as this can make the situation worse. Predator removal opens up that territory to other predators and is a very short term solution. However, if a farmer has a proven problem animal and feels removal is the only option we will assist along with the Wildlife Department.
Please explain how tracking via the cellular network works and how different it is to older methods of radio collar tracking?
The GSM collars collect a GPS reading from the satellite and then sends that to you via the cellular network. You can receive it to your cell phone or email. It means you no longer have to physically locate the animal on the ground to get its location, as it all happens remotely. With the older radio tracking methods, you must fly or drive to locate the animal. It can be very time consuming and you may not always find the animal. The drawback is you have to use it in an area with cellular network.
Until recently you accepted paying volunteers to assist with your work at Jwaneng Game Reserve in the Southern Kalahari – what were their responsibilities and what attributes do you look for in a volunteer when approving their application to work with you? What can someone who has no scientific background really contribute to your research?
We take anyone with a strong motivation towards wildlife conservation. Also, that they are prepared to live in the bush, with simple facilities, prepared to get on well with others, wash their own laundry, get dirty, cope with extreme temperatures and irregular work schedules. We would give training to all volunteers on the actitivies they would be assisting with, Someone with no scientific background can be trained for particular activities and often be the most motivated and hard working individuals as they appreciate the experience so much. We also try to get people to make best use of their skills, i.e. if you are a marketing professional you could help with some promotional materials, brochures etc. A conservation project takes a huge range of skills to run effectively not only scientific knowledge, although this is of course essential.
What is your opinion regarding human intervention when dealing with wildlife and how can such intervention affect the stability of an ecosystem?
The less intervention the better but as wild areas continue to decrease in size more management will be required for the healthy functioning of an ecosystem.
What is the worst case you have had to deal within the course of your work?
It’s a particularly challenging issue to work on wildlife conflict issues. The hardest situation is hearing about cheetah being killed on farmlands and for illegal trade. Talking to a farmer who tells you they killed 7 cheetahs on their farm last week and trying to be constructive and unconfrontational takes a lot of diplomacy! The worst thing we can do is alienate the farming community so the project has to walk a fine line.
Aside from the website www.cheetahbotswana.com what other forms of publicity do you use to inform the public of your work, and in general where does most public interest come from?
We give out educational materials at all workshops, site and school visits, etc. We have regular awareness raising stalls. Regular magazine articles. We go on the local radio every 3months. We’ve just produced an awareness raising film to go out on local television. Most public interest comes from the farming community and conservation enthusiasts.
Apart from your relationship with the cheetah, what else is it about Africa that inspires you to make it your home?
Africa is an inspiring and diverse place. Botswana in particular has some of the last wilderness areas on earth and has real potential to conserve many species of African wildlife into the future. They say we all originated in Africa once upon a time and there is a certain deep connection to it that resonates in us all.
I love the space, the wildlife and habitats and of course the people!
The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.