two cheetahs

The Cheetah Challenge

The Western Cape Cheetah Conservation (WCCC) at Inverdoorn Game Reserve is a rescue and rehabilitation centre for cheetahs. With less than 10 000 cheetahs left throughout the world, it has become one of the most endangered big cats. In addition to rescuing cheetahs and raising awareness about the threats to their survival, the WCCC has implemented breeding programmes in an effort to combat declining numbers in the population.

Cheetahs are at risk due to human conflict and competition from other predators. Their limited gene pool, a result of inbreeding, as well as their unique social structure, pose further risks to their survival. According to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, “Cheetahs are one of the few mammal species in which adult females are solitary and adult males often live in social groups;” and the two sexes only interact in order to breed. Furthermore, the Smithsonian Institute asserts that “female cheetahs are very selective in choosing mates.” Our previous post, Much Ado about Cheetahs, highlighted this challenge with the matter of Lotta preferring Banzi over the genetically-superior Joti.

Zahra Hirji, a correspondent for Scope, says that “Compared to other big cats, cheetahs are high maintenance…Attentive animal keepers need to correctly identify when a female is in heat and then walk through male introductions.” We can thus appreciate the difficult work undertaken by the cheetah handlers at the WCCC and understand why Leah Brousse, their Main Cheetah Handler, spends most of her time in the breeding camp. Her work involves determining which of the female cheetahs are in heat, or oestrus. This is not an easy task. Drawing blood from the cheetah may determine oestrus, but the attendant stress of the procedure can affect the reproductive hormones. Cheetah handlers must therefore take careful heed of behaviour such as rolling, rubbing, sniffing, vocalising and urine spraying. Even then, these behaviours are not guaranteed signs of oestrus.

 The next step involves the pairing of suitable cheetahs. As Hirji points out, “If a given male does not work out, ideally other eligible bachelors will be on hand.” With five cheetahs in the WCCC’s breeding camp, the handlers can introduce and encourage various pairs until a successful match is made. Should a cheetah pair successfully mate, the next task is determining pregnancy. This is equally difficult to establish. Leah says there are ways of finding out, but these would also lead to unnecessary stress. “You can obviously do an x-ray, but then you would have to dart the female, and to stress her like that during pregnancy isn’t the best idea. Then there is the possibility to see movement in her stomach at a late stage of pregnancy. If she rolls on her back, you may be able to see movement on the side of her stomach, but it’s not easy….you can try and feel the babies at about 35 days, which I will try and do, but you can only do it with the tame cats.”

 Cheetah breeding programmes are thus a highly challenging venture. However, the advantages lie in the ability to pair up unrelated cheetahs and providing a secure environment for cubs. Reproduction in the wild may be more successful, but unfortunately cubs fall prey to other predators or succumb to genetic deficiencies. It is important to bear in mind that many of the cheetahs at the WCCC have been rescued from terrible conditions and would not be able to survive in the wild. It is thus necessary to teach them how to fend for themselves, which is why they are taken on routine runs. In order to hone their hunting skills, the cheetahs are put through the paces of chasing and catching a lure. The runs also form an integral part of the breeding programme. The female’s body temperature must escalate to at least 40°C in order to enable ovulation – which is why the females run more regularly than the males. In fact, strict control is exercised over the males so that their body temperature does not exceed 38.6°C, causing them to overheat and their sperm to be killed.

The WCCC brings together cheetahs from across South Africa, Namibia and Botswana in an effort to keep the gene pool as wide as possible. To create even greater genetic diversity, unrelated cheetahs are paired up. This step is vital to their survival as cheetahs would not naturally breed with relatives, unless forced to. Centuries ago this is exactly what happened, as the growing human population lead to habitat loss for cheetahs, forcing them to interbreed and resulting in a narrowed and weakened gene pool.

It is imperative to increase both the gene pool and the population to avoid cheetahs in breeding programmes, as well as in the wild, from having to mate with relatives in a desperate bid for survival. Leah admits that the probability of such a circumstance in the world is frightening, “With the bad genetics that they already have, humans have to try to only breed cheetahs with good genes otherwise the number and survival chance will keep on declining. If you compare the numbers, the cheetah number is actually still quite high…There are 6 000 cheetahs. If you compare that to some tiger subspecies, where there are only 400, it is quite high. But since their genes are so bad…[it] makes our job so much harder. If there are only cheetahs left that have bad genes, or are family, the species will not make it.”

The breeding programmes are a challenging task, but it is imperative that they be undertaken if we hope to save the species. The Smithsonian Institute asserts that while “captive breeding provides a means for conserving species that may not survive in the wild…[the] goal may also be to re-introduce animals back to the wild”. If the cheetahs at the WCCC can successfully mate and produce healthy cubs, it will ultimately mean that the WCCC can release strong and genetically-diverse cheetahs and contribute to an increase in the population of the species, as well as a wider gene pool. Any given area, whether it is a national park or a game reserve, can only sustain a certain amount of wildlife. If Inverdoorn should ever find themselves with too many cheetahs, they can be released into other parks and reserves, which will lead to further distribution of strong genes.

Originally published on Inverdoorn Game Reserve.

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