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I Recognise the Cheetah by its Paw

Nothing quite excites the imagination than going for an early morning’s walk and seeing the paw prints of lions along the road from the previous night’s hunt. How many of them are they? How far away might they be? Who are they? Are they still hungry? Will I live to eat breakfast? Now, spend time...

A cheetah has lunch under a bush Photo Stuart Pimm

Nothing quite excites the imagination than going for an early morning’s walk and seeing the paw prints of lions along the road from the previous night’s hunt. How many of them are they? How far away might they be? Who are they? Are they still hungry? Will I live to eat breakfast?

Now, spend time with hunter-gatherers, such as the Hadzabe, who help Big Cats Initiative grantee Laly Lichtenfeld, and they have answers to these and so many more questions. What they deduce from looking at the scantiest traces of big cats is impressive. How could it be otherwise? We humans may be a weak, scrawny little ape, but in our capacity to understand animal spoor, communicate to others what they mean, then perform impressive athletic feats of tracking animals for tens of miles each day, we have essential ingredients for our survival.

I should have said, “had the ingredients”, for surely we’ve lost such skills. If so, what information is there in the animal tracks we see, but do not appreciate?

Watch enough National Geographic specials and you form a picture of Africa as endless grasslands with cheetahs chasing gazelles across them. Of course, filmmakers capture wildlife where they can see them, but most of savannah Africa has dense bushes and scattered trees. Uncooperatively, cheetahs hide behind or underneath them.

We really need to know how many cheetahs there are. Even in the heartland of their range — Namibia and Botswana — cheetahs are hard to spot. Yet, wherever they go, they leave their paw prints, of course. For every lion, cheetah, and leopard I’ve seen, I’ve seen hundreds of footprints. I’ve not yet seen a tiger, but have seen many impressively large prints in the soft mud of Indian jungles. Simply, footprints are almost everywhere.

Sky Alibhai and Zoe Jewell are the husband and wife team behind Wildtrack. It’s a NGO devoted to improving conservation monitoring techniques, using JMP data visualization software from the SAS Institute, near my base at Duke University, to see just what information we can extract from footprints.

Footprint Identification Tenchnology Photo Zoe Jewell
Footprint Identification Tenchnology Photo Zoe Jewell

FIT image 1

National Geographic grantees, their formative experiences were working on rhinos for a decade in Zimbabwe. Darting and radio-collaring rhinos seemed a good way to learn about them and protect them — much as moving rhinos from South Africa’s Kruger National Park does today for some people. Sky and Zoe quickly learned that female rhinos that were constantly handled in this way stopped having young. The process was just too traumatic.

Their answer was to see if they could follow individual rhinos from their footprints to understand their movements. Later, their work moved to tigers in Nepal and China, pandas in China — and to cheetahs in Namibia.

So, in this third instalment about my recent trip around southern Africa, I’m visiting Kellie Laity, a student of mine at Duke University who is working with Wildtrack at N/a’an kuin Namibia. Kellie’s job is to amass a large collection of cheetah footprint photographs. Then she uses FIT — “footprint identification technology” — to digitise the key points of a cheetah’s footprint. Data come in quickly. She gets lots of different images from the same cheetah walking along a sandy road. Then there are different images from the same animal in different years — for some animals are kept in large enclosures — and she has revisited animals that Sky and Zoe studied a few years ago. There are the same animals different habitats, not all of which produce good paw prints as does soft sand. And there are many different animals.

The point of all this is to see if FIT can consistently identify the individual cheetahs, using the paw prints in much the same way one might do for human fingerprints.

“The results are really encouraging.” Zoe told me. “When we know the identity of each animal, we can see how well FIT does in identifying them. It gets the right answer 90% of the time.” Kellie’s job is to put FIT through its paces, testing on many different known animals under different conditions to see if it works as well on wild animals as those in captivity.

The point of all this is to take FIT into the field and work out how many cheetahs there are. Cheetahs out in the open plains are easy. Those hiding under the bushes are not. Unless we have a good estimate of cheetah numbers — and the estimates vary by a huge amount — we cannot assess how endangered cheetahs are and whether the efforts of Big Cats Initiative grantees are stemming their decline.


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Meet the Author

Author Photo Stuart Pimm
Stuart Pimm is the Doris Duke Chair of Conservation Ecology at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. He is a world leader in the study of present day extinctions and what we can do to prevent them. Pimm received his BSc degree from Oxford University in 1971 and his Ph.D from New Mexico State University in 1974. Pimm is the author of nearly 300 scientific papers and four books. He is one of the most highly cited environmental scientists. Pimm wrote the highly acclaimed assessment of the human impact to the planet: The World According to Pimm: a Scientist Audits the Earth in 2001. His commitment to the interface between science and policy has led to his testimony to both House and Senate Committees on the re-authorization of the Endangered Species Act. He has served on National Geographic’s Committee for Research and Exploration and currently works with their Big Cats Initiative. In addition to his studies in Africa, Pimm has worked in the wet forests of Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil for decades and is a long-term collaborator of the forest fragmentation project north of Manaus, Brazil. Pimm directs SavingSpecies, a 501c3 non-profit that uses funds for carbon emissions offsets to fund local conservation groups to restore degraded lands in areas of exceptional tropical biodiversity. His international honours include the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement (2010), the Dr. A.H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (2006).