Rewilding Apex Predators Has Effects on Lower Trophic Levels: Cheetahs and Ungulates in a Woodland Savanna

  • December 14, 2022
  • by Ruble D., Verschueren S., Cristescu B., Marker L. L.


The restoration of ecosystems through trophic rewilding has become increasingly common worldwide, but the effects on predator–prey and ecosystem dynamics remain poorly understood. For example, predation pressure may impose spatiotemporal behavioural adjustments in prey individuals, affecting herbivory and predation success, and therefore potentially impinging on the long-term success of trophic rewilding through apex predator reintroduction. Predation risk might have detrimental effects on prey through displacement from water or other vital resources. We investigated how five species of African ungulates responded behaviourally to changes in predation risk, following cheetah releases in the system. We grouped ungulates by body size to represent preferred prey weight ranges of the cheetah and examined changes in visitation rates, duration of stay, and activity patterns at waterholes with and without cheetah presence. During cheetah presence, visitation rates of ungulates were low for medium-sized species but high for large-sized species, suggesting that the species within the cheetah’s preferred prey weight range adjusted behaviourally to minimize waterhole visits. Visits to waterholes were longer for small- and large-sized ungulates with cheetah presence, possibly indicating increased vigilance, or a strategy to maximize water intake per visit while minimizing visits. We did not detect significant differences in circadian or seasonal activity in waterhole visits, which may be attributable to the need of ungulates to access water year-round in our semi-arid study system and where migration was impeded due to physical barriers (fencing). We recommend further research into the long-term behavioural consequences of trophic rewilding on prey populations and trophic cascades to assist the success of recovery programs and to minimize potential detrimental effects at target sites.

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