By Jody Bourton
Earth News reporter
One of a kind, a cheetah's paw print
Conservationists have developed a new technique to identify cheetahs in the wild from just their paw prints.
The technique works in a similar way to that which allows humans to be identified by fingerprints.
By photographing paw prints in the wild researchers can monitor cheetahs without ever seeing them.
It is hoped that this non-invasive technique may aid conservation efforts to protect the cheetah population in the wild.
The footprint identification technique (FIT) has already helped researchers study other big cats and endangered species including bengal tigers and polar bears.
Now the method has been developed for the first time with cheetahs in a international collaboration involving conservation organisations N/a'an ku sê sanctuary, Wildtrack, AfriCat and Chester Zoo.
The technique is based on the assumption that every paw print is unique to that cheetah and can be identified similar to a human fingerprint.
The local San people in Namibia have been able to identify individual animals from their tracks for many years.
Whereas each human fingerprint has a unique pattern of ridges and whorls, each cheetah produces a paw print of unique size, shape and character.
Digital photographs of each cheetah's prints are taken and fed into a computer database.
When a new print in sighted and recorded, a bespoke computer program then scans these photographs, recording the distances between specific points on the paw print, until it finds a match.
So far, researchers have photographed and taken measurements of footprints from wild and captive cheetahs held in N/a'an ku sê sanctuary in central Namibia, Africa and Chester Zoo in the UK.
They now hope to increase the size of their database to include many more wild cheetahs, allowing the cats to be identified in a non-invasive way.
Paw prints from individual animals will enable scientists to understand the movements and interactions of cheetahs plus how many there are in a certain area.
"It is extremely important because you can never catch and collar all cheetah to find out about their population size and structure, their interactions and how the population changes over time," says Florian Weise co-ordinator of the N/a'an ku sê research programme.
This technique will also enable problem animals to be identified and relocated protecting them for future generations.
Cheetahs in Namibia that stray out of conservation zones and onto farmland are often killed by farmers who fear they are a threat to their livestock.
Best foot forward, a Namibian cheetah
In the first year of study on commercial farmland in the Windhoek area of Namibia researchers have identified 18 resident cheetahs in an area of 20,000 ha.
Out of this population, two cheetahs were identified as problem animals and subsequently relocated.
The team hope to develop the technique so that they can make it available to other conservation programmes across Africa.
They also aim to continue their work with local farmers and land owners to reduce cheetah and human conflict.