The cheetah is the rarest big cat in Africa. Less than 7000 adults remain on the planet. Think of it this way: for every cheetah on the planet there are more than four Starbucks coffee shops.

The most important cheetah stronghold is in Central Namibia. But the cheetahs there don’t live within national parks. They live on privately owned farmland.

MELZHEIMER: “There were farmers having huge problems with cheetahs, losing a lot of livestock, and there were other farmers who actually didn’t have any problem at all.”

Ecologist Joerg Melzheimer, from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, assumed at first that all farmers had cheetah trouble; it was just that some were more likely to complain about it.

But after tracking fifty collared cheetahs, he began to suspect that there really was a pattern to their killing. By the time his team had data from 106 cheetahs, collared over the course of a decade, not only was he certain that cheetahs were more likely to kill in some places than in others, but that he could solve the problem.

MELZHEIMER: “We indeed found these communication hubs of cheetahs which are spread evenly across the landscape with a high activity of cheetahs within the hubs.”

Cheetahs are an asocial species, but they still need to trade information.

MELZHEIMER: “They don’t meet physically, typically not. But they leave marks at prominent landmarks where they use urine or feces to communicate with each other.”

Think of it as a coffee shop for cats, where animals trade gossip. Even though these communication hubs only comprise around ten percent of the landscape, cheetahs spend most – sometimes all – of their time within them.

MELZHEIMER: “This is basically a long-term tradition which is passed on from cheetah generation to cheetah generation. Some of these communication hubs are basically known, or let’s say the marking locations, the marking trees were known by the farmers for sixty, seventy years. The grandfather of the current farmer already knew the marking trees in this area.”

What the farmers never realized is that only some farms overlap with the cheetahs’ communication hubs.

Melzheimer thought that those farmers relocated their most vulnerable herds, it could be a huge help. He remembers the first farmer he tried to convince.

MELZHEIMER: “I told him, look, Wilfred, I have the idea that they are actually there because of these marking trees. And you happen to have your small calves exactly in the same area. Let’s try to move your herds out of this area and keep them somewhere else. And then let’s measure the losses. And he was laughing at me, he said, nice idea, but I’m not sure whether this is going to work. They will probably follow the calves. So we tried this and it actually worked. And he earned much more money because he lost less calves.

After that, thirty-five more farmers agreed to try it out. In all, the number of calves lost to cheetah predation fell by a whopping 86 percent. Of course some cattle outside of communication hubs were still lost to cheetahs, but it was at a low enough level that most farmers seemed to tolerate it.

What this means is that cheetahs aren’t actively following the cattle, they simply take advantage of whatever food is available nearby. If it’s not cattle, then they go after wild ungulates like springbok, or oryx, or kudu. There are no so-called “problem cheetahs” who intentionally seek out cattle.

Instead, there are “problem areas.” That’s a much easier problem to solve, and it’s one that doesn’t result in farmers killing cheetahs. Melzheimer is now hard at work collecting tracking data from cheetahs in other parts of Africa to see whether his findings hold up in other ecosystems.

So often it seems as if the goals of wildlife conservation are incompatible with the goals of commerce. But this story reveals that in fact biodiversity and agriculture can coexist.

MELZHEIMER: “Our case is really one of these nice examples where it can go hand in hand.”

—Jason G. Goldman

 (The above text is a transcript of this podcast)

[Joerg Melzheimer et al. Communication hubs of an asocial cat are the source of a human-carnivore conflict and key to its solution.]