Captive breeding could bring big cats back from the brink

Born free? Not yet. Gareth Fuller/PA

It may be the fastest animal on earth, but the cheetah is struggling to outrun the threats to its extinction. With only 50 to 70 animals estimated to remain in Iran, the Asiatic cheetah is on the verge of extinction in the wild. While the more familiar African cheetah is more numerous, with around 12,000 individuals across the whole continent, it’s also at risk.

So long as humans and wildlife compete for the use of the same land and resources, there will always be a struggle. This comes down to rights, and which species have more. Animals, including humans, are resource-driven, so removing food sources and fragmenting habitats will have the most serious impact on a species. But when humans go beyond this by actively removing “problem animals”, perhaps due to a perceived threat to crops or livestock, this puts an even greater pressure on their survival.

However, there are means to try to boost cheetah numbers in the wild. Fenced, predator-proof refuge areas, such as private reserves like Cheetah Plains Private Game Reserve and Timbavati Nature Reserve, can be appropriately stocked and managed to ensure cheetah survival. Populations can also be relocated to regions where cheetahs historically ranged but where the cause of their extermination has been addressed. This was demonstrated by the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia and the Endangered Wildlife Trust in South Africa.

Alternatively, cheetahs can be bred in captivity, trained, and released into controlled wild areas. Where species or sub-species are critically endangered, the release of captive-bred animals into the wild can be used as way of supplementing existing populations or forming new founder populations.

In training for the wild

In South Africa, the most promising strategy has been when cheetahs, prior to release, have been “trained to be wild”. This includes changing their diet to the wild game they will encounter on release so they become accustomed to tearing skin and even chewing around bones. And they must develop the strength to be able to bring down prey. It’s also important that these cheetahs become accustomed to starvation periods when prey is scarce or other conditions hinder a successful hunt. These are simple things that a wild cheetah would learn through nurture, but captive breeding does not afford the luxury of learning from mother.

Removing any conditioning or familiarity to human presence that can develop during captivity is also important as this could pose a threat to the cheetahs – and to people. If cheetahs gravitate to human settlements which carry familiar associations with food they are likely to be harmed, and in a volatile situation a cheetah is perfectly capable of causing harm with its teeth and claws.

Once the animal has been released, there are even more decisions to be made about how to monitor and manage the programme. There is debate as to what is deemed a successful re-introduction – for example, if and when breeding can take place, and how independent of human interference the animals really are.

Difficult but needed

Such re-introductions have been tried but have not always been successful, mainly because of human influences like poisoning, hunting, and road accidents. Other deaths have been due to natural problems of starvation, disease, or often due to insufficient conditioning of the animal prior to release.

The forerunner of these style of re-introduction projects is the Ann Van Dyke Cheetah Centre (formerly the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre), which produced 785 cubs between 1975-2005. As part of a re-introduction project, the centre released six captive bred cheetahs into the wild between 2007-2010 – two single females and two pairs of male coalitions (as social animals, cheetah males often form a group known as a coalition). After extensive training, only one female and two males survived and recovered their wild habits. Since then, there have been no more attempts to re-introduce captive bred cheetah into the wild in South Africa.

Until human populations see evident economic or cultural value in wildlife then protecting endangered species such as the cheetah will continue to be a struggle. And until these values can be assured then any efforts to increase wild cheetah populations will be futile. It’s essential – particularly when dealing with endangered species and predators – that the issues that drove them to become endangered in the first place are tackled.

Unfortunately this usually takes time and effort, and so it’s important to continue working on programmes of captive-born reintroductions. While these have not always been successful, the ground has been laid for future work, and re-introduction remains an important means to win time in the fight against species extinction.

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