Researchers at Zoological Society of London and colleagues have come up with a novel way of determining the numbers and distribution of cheetah in a region in Western Zambia – using dogs.

Scientists say that while specially trained detection dogs have demonstrated effectiveness for carnivore surveys, they haven’t been utilized for surveys of extremely sparse, wide-ranging species, such as cheetah Acinonyx jubatus. In their study published in Journal of Zoology, scientists have revealed findings of the first rigorous cheetah survey using detection dogs in a key transboundary area in the remote Liuwa–Mussuma Transfrontier Conservation Area (TFCA) in Western Zambia.

The research represents the first demonstration of this strategy for wide-ranging species that are often threatened. While traditional survey methods failed to detect any cheetah, using dogs specially trained to locate scat and other signs allowed the team to detect cheetah presence throughout the survey area. The researchers estimated a density of 5.9 to 6.6 cheetah per 1000km2.

“With the alarming global decline of cheetah, we need new methods to be able to monitor and evaluate the remaining populations, many of which are in very remote ecosystems where traditional survey methods are challenging at best,” said Dr. Matthew Becker, lead author of the Journal of Zoology study. “With this study, detection dogs once again demonstrate they are a powerful conservation tool and an important ally for threatened African carnivores like cheetah.”

Researchers say their study and subsequent findings demonstrates the efficacy of detection dog survey methods in providing information on cheetah across large landscapes. They say that the method will be of particular value in areas where other survey means may be impossible because of size, remoteness and lack of accessibility.