OTHER CHEETAH NEWS!
Captive breeding could bring big cats back from the brink
By Nkabeng Maruping, Tshwane University of Technology
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.
Nkabeng Maruping does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
It's still possible to save the Asiatic cheetah, the world's second-rarest cat
By Mohammad Farhadinia, University of Oxford
The last few surviving Asiatic cheetahs live in Iran, where they stalk the hyper-arid landscape, where temperatures swing from -30°C to 50°C. This is the only place in the world a cheetah, most of which live in Africa, will experience snow.
Iran is home to the last known population of Asiatic cheetah, a creature which once roamed across vast ranges of west and south Asian countries, from the Middle East to India. Today, the cheetahs are known only from around 15 reserves in Iran, all officially protected by the country’s government.
Together with genetic distinctiveness from their African cousins, the Asiatic cheetahs are smaller and more slightly built. Iranian biologists were surprised to learn that the Asiatic cheetahs are mainly found in mountainous regions – a very different proposition from the view expected from wildlife documentaries in which cheetahs pursue sprinting gazelles across open plains.
Camera traps are reliable tools to try to gauge the population of these spotted cats, whose markings are individually unique. However, this technology has been rarely applied to cheetahs across their global range due to the paucity of individuals and their elusive nature. Due to political sanctions, the necessary equipment is not easily available in Iran, and this has prevented a thorough assessment of the species in the past.
Thanks to various donors and partners, including Panthera and Dutch NGO Stichting SPOTS, a monitoring program was recently launched that would fill the gaps in our knowledge about the cheetah that is essential for its protection. Even so the results were surprising, revealing only 40 to 70 cheetahs across the country – smaller even than previous estimates of up to 100. Listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, the Asiatic cheetah is among the rarest cats in the world at subspecies level, after the Amur leopard.
Guarding Iran’s last cheetahs
Around 125 game guards protect the cheetah’s range in Iran as Cheetah Guardians, thanks to tremendous efforts of the Conservation of Asiatic Cheetah Project (CACP), the Iranian Department of the Environment (DoE), and UNDP in Iran, which tried to double the number of guards employed by the DoE during the past decade. Equipped with 4WD vehicles and motorbikes, each guard is responsible for protecting around 640km2 of the landscape, an indication that more forces are needed.
In order to safeguard the cheetahs, the DoE established more reserves while existing reserves received more resources. In the Iran’s northeast Miandasht Wildlife Refuge has been a key site for the cheetahs after a threefold boom in prey species. As a result, the cheetahs have established a breeding population there, vital to help re-colonise other reserves.
As is the case for many wildlife species, the cheetah was little known among the public ten years ago. But with the animals' plight appealing to the media it has garnered considerable coverage, leaving the public in no doubt about the state of the cheetah’s decline. With united effort from government and NGOs, this year the cheetah even became the first species to appear emblazoned on the Iranian national football team’s jersey during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
So as a symbol of the nation’s wildlife, the public awareness and support the cheetah receives is an important step to ensure its long-term survival. But it is not enough. It is vital to build an expert opinion on what to do about the species' critically small population, rising mortality from human causes, such as traffic collisions, and falling birth rates.
While further research is needed, we know that Asiatic cheetahs have much lower genetic diversity than African cheetahs, but we are still hopeful that better connectivity between the various reserves to allow cheetahs to intermingle could maintain a basic level of gene flow between small cheetah populations.
We need the authorities to confront and defeat plans for property development and infrastructure such as roads, mines and railways within the main cheetah reserves. For example, a road to be constructed through Bafq Protected Area in central Iran was a major concern, but the DoE managed to stop construction and propose an alternative route.
Cheetahs are known to kill small livestock, and claims of cheetahs killing young camel, sheep, and goat are rife among shepherds. Recent cases in different parts of the country have raised concerns that cheetahs could be killed by protective herders. At least five have been known to be killed by herders since 2010, twice the number killed in the previous decade. To try to prevent this, the Iranian Department of Environment and CACP established a programme to compensate for cheetah predation for five years.
On August 31 1994 a cheetah was rescued from dying of thirst in central Iran. Named Marita, for nearly ten years she was the only evidence of the existence of cheetahs outside Africa. In 2007, the Iranian Cheetah Society (ICS) designated August 31 as National Cheetah Day, an annual event to draw people’s attention to conservation issues in Iran. The cheetah is lucky to have a day bearing its name, but to survive they will need much more than luck.
Mohammad Farhadinia is co-founder of the Iranian Cheetah Society.
The Asiatic cheetah has a small and shrinking population with only 50-70 animals remaining within 15 reserves in Iran. Could captive breeding be the answer? When a species’ population count is this incredibly small this type of a program seems both reasonable and manageable. And, with successes like the Scimitar Oryx and California Condor, it even sounds achievable. But, are captive breeding programs a reasonable option for large carnivores?
There have been captive cheetahs who have been successfully released into the wild. In 2006, the Cheetah Conservation Fund released a female cheetah, Shiraz, and her cubs, Sheya, Linyanti, Omukumo and Nehale, after “training” in a fenced game farm. While mama had been captive for many years, she was wild-born herself and was able to successfully teach her captive-born cubs how to hunt. This could have been the key element that contributed to the cub’s success after being released at Erindi Private Game Reserve in Namibia. A seemingly common issue which has been seen with the release of captive cheetahs, whether they were wild- or captive-born, is they have a higher propensity to become a “problem animal” hunting livestock instead of wild game. Proper “training” and placement of release could reduce this risk. As they say in dog training, “set them up for success.”
Something like this will also cost a bloody fortune, especially if it’s to be managed properly. With the Asiatic cheetah population so small, I believe a carefully managed captive breeding program could be possible as long as someone can find the funding, space and personnel needed to pull the operation off in the Middle East.