Post submitted by Alex Rudee
Esther van der Meer looks right at home amid all the five-star luxuries of the Victoria Falls Hotel.
As she relaxes in a wicker chair on the red-brick porch of the famous resort, Esther seems for all the world like just another high-end tourist soaking up the African sun. Donning a green cargo vest and elephant-print scarf, she might be ready to hop in the next safari truck for Hwange National Park.
But as soon as Esther starts to tell her story, it’s obvious she’s no tourist. Esther has lived and breathed more of Zimbabwe than even Cecil Rhodes could have imagined.
“We were on the road for three years,” Esther explains in her lilting Dutch accent. “We started in the north of the country, then in the second year we covered the south of the country, and in the third year, the east. We were living out of a Land Rover the whole time.”
What could possibly have driven a mild-mannered European to take up a nomadic life in the Zimbabwean bush for that long?
Esther’s answer is simple: the cheetahs.
“When we started our cheetah project in 2012, we spoke to the authorities and other researchers,” she recalls. “We very quickly realized that no one actually knew where the cheetahs were in Zimbabwe or how many we had left. So we decided to find out.”
Mapping and counting the cheetahs of Zimbabwe turned out to be no simple task. During their three-year road trip, Esther and her husband Hans Dullemont visited 58 of Zimbabwe’s 60 districts, surveying people in government agency offices, commercial farms, hunting concessions and conservation areas everywhere they went to gather data on cheetah sightings. Often, their surveys took them far off the beaten path.
“We went to all kinds of weird places where people hadn’t been for many years,” Hans remembers. “In some national parks and safari areas we were the first car in four years to pass through. You can imagine how the roads were.”
How did the pair make it out of the bush in one piece? Luckily, Hans is a mechanic by training. “He kept us going,” Esther says. “He can take care of the Land Rover all by himself.”
The data that Hans and Esther collected along the way were published this past September by Cheetah Conservation Project Zimbabwe, a nonprofit organization that Esther herself founded. The report paints a worrying picture for the country’s cheetah population.
Esther found that adult cheetah numbers in Zimbabwe have plummeted by 85% over the last fifteen years, with only 150 to 170 individuals now remaining. She attributes the steep decline to dramatic changes in land use patterns in areas where cheetahs once thrived.
In the early 2000’s, a government policy of land reform replaced large commercial farmlands with small-scale subsistence farms across the country. In some cases, land that was previously occupied by just one farmer suddenly had to support more than 400 households. The new system of intensive subsistence agriculture left little room for wildlife.
Now, most of the country’s remaining cheetahs are confined to wildlife protected areas. Esther’s survey found that three regions support relatively healthy cheetah populations: Hwange-Matetsi-Victoria Falls (in western Zimbabwe), Hurungwe-Mana Pools-Sapi (in the north), and Malilangwe-Gonarezhou (in the southeast). Each of these ecosystems connects with protected land in neighboring Zambia, Botswana or Mozambique.
“These three cheetah populations have the best chance to survive,” Esther says. “We need to prioritize these areas for future conservation, and we should prioritize the cheetah in the management plans for these areas.”
She also has a wish list of many other policy proposals that could benefit cheetahs. Her recommendations include reducing the national hunting quota from 50 to five cheetahs, establishing or reviving human-wildlife conflict mitigation and education programs around key cheetah areas, and promoting joint management of cheetahs in transfrontier regions.
For Esther, this visit to the Victoria Falls Hotel is no holiday, though the accommodations certainly beat the back of a Land Rover. This is just another stop on her grand journey, three years and counting, to find a future for the cheetah in Zimbabwe