The Cheetah and its race for survival

On 21/12/2011, in All posts, by Animal Welfare Intergroup

The world’s fastest land animal, the sleek and long-legged cheetah, is running  its race for survival. Once a common animal found on five continents, the cheetah is now an Endangered Species.

Loss of habitat, conflict with humans and its own loss of genetic variation are the main threats facing the cheetah today.

The cheetah is a top-of-the-line predator which needs large expanses of land to survive, but with changes in land use and habitat pressures, such as bush encroachment, this area is becoming smaller and smaller. Unfortunately, captive breeding efforts have not proven meaningful to the cheetah’s hopes of survival.

Cheetahs can reach speeds of over 110 km/h, but are extremely clumsy fighters. The result is that although the cheetahs are the best hunters in Africa, they lose much of their prey to the more aggressive predators, such as lions and hyenas that chase them away and steal their food.

Females define the cheetahs’ unusual social order. Except when raising cubs, they are loners, and they select their mating partners. Males meanwhile, form coalitions of siblings that hunt together and may remain together for life. In Namibia, males range over an area of about 1400 square km, while females travel farther—more than 2400 square km. Mothers have litters of up to six blind and helpless cubs. Perhaps to hide those from predators, cheetah mothers move their cubs to different dens every few days for the first six weeks of life (which makes tracking growing cubs difficult for researchers). Cheetah females reach maturity and leave the family when they are about 2 years old. No one knows for sure how long they survive in the wild; the animals live between 8 and 12 years in captivity.

The largest population of cheetahs is in Namibia, a country that is now growing more independent and democratic. With the country’s expansion, there was a drastic decline of the cheetah population in the 1980s, when the population was halved in a 10-year period, leaving an estimated population of less than 2.500 animals.

At the beginning of the 1990s, when the Cheetah Conservation Fund – CCF began its campaigns with the farming community, a gradual change has occurred within Namibia, and over the last couple of years the population has stabilized. CCF’s research has shown that most recently farmers have more tolerance for cheetahs and are killing less. Those that are being killed are linked to livestock losses. More frequently farmers are calling the CCF to help them.

Dr Laurie Marker is Executive Director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, a non-profit foundation she built from scratch that has become the template for a new, visionary approach to wildlife management. Without her, the fleet-footed predators of Africa’s bush country would likely be closer to extinction. Even now they are not safe. They have a low fertility rate, a high incidence of birth defects and weak immune systems.

Inbreeding is a major threat for the species

Starting in 1980, researchers began to examine the cheetah’s reproductive characteristics and conduct the first-ever studies of cheetah DNA. Semen samples revealed shockingly low sperm counts—about 10 percent of the norm for other felines. And there were huge numbers of malformed sperm—about 70 percent in each sample. This explains the animals’ low fertility.

Research on blood enzymes of a larger number of cheetahs has shown that they were all alike. Studies on their genome confirmed that they were virtual clones, which is a proof that they are catastrophically inbred. This is very disturbing as it means that also their immune systems are so similar that almost every cheetah in the world has the same vulnerability to the same diseases.

Cheetahs have passed through a population “bottleneck” about 12000 years ago. Some apocalyptic event had wiped out all but a few animals that then interbred, with disastrous consequences for the animal’s gene pool. The obvious culprit was the onset of the last ice age, a cold snap that coincided with the extinction of sabre-toothed cats, mastodons and other large prehistoric mammals. Fossil evidence shows that cheetahs evolved in North America about 8.5 million years ago and then spread throughout Asia, India, Europe and Africa; the modern species appeared about 200000 years ago. The bottleneck wiped out all of North America’s animals.

Researchers now know that the cheetah will not be a robust, vigorous species anytime in the foreseeable future and that saving the animals requires a combination of strategies. Protecting and studying them in the wild is one approach, while at the same time scientists are refining techniques to breed them in captivity, hoping to build an insurance policy for the wild population. The work continues today at the new Cheetah Science Facility in Front Royal, Virginia, USA.

In Namibia, 95 % of cheetahs live on territory owned by ranchers. When Dr Marker first got there, ranchers typically called cheetah “vermin” and killed about 600 every year. Dr Marker’s conservation plan was simple. She consistently spoke with the farmers about their experiences and about the problems they thought cheetahs were causing. She shared her expertise as it grew. Cheetahs could not kill full-grown cattle, she explained, so ranchers might want to focus on protecting newborn calves. Cheetahs would rather eat wild game than risk an encounter with humans. The best ranches, Dr Marker told the farmers, kept records for each animal, used herdsmen to spot cows ready to calve, and then brought them into an enclosure until they did so.

With time, many of the ranchers have stopped killing cheetahs and instead bring those they have trapped to the CCF, who take blood and semen samples from the animals, check their age and health, tag and release them. The CCF has also established a sanctuary for motherless cubs which currently houses 54 orphan cheetahs.

Dr Marker’s observations of cheetah behaviour constitute most of what we know about them. She was the first to understand that females are the ones that select mates—a major reason why captive breeding had such a poor record. She also learned that if two or more females occupy the same space, they may suppress each other’s reproductive hormones. Today, breeders isolate females and let them choose mates from among the available males.

The CCF organises integrated local education programs. In 1990, to help the African shepherds and goatherds, Dr Marker consulted evolutionary biologist Ray Copping who recommended using guard dogs against the incursion of cheetahs. The Anatolian shepherd dog has proven to be an efficient help in keeping cheetahs away from sheep and goat herds. Over the years the CCF has given away 280 Anatolian shepherd puppies to ranches and communes all over the country.

The CCF has now a satellite program in Kenya, assists cheetah conservation efforts in Algeria and Iran, trains farmers in Botswana and breeds dogs in South Africa.

Today the world cheetah population stands at about 12500 animals in 26 countries. This is the lowest point in probably 9000 years. Nevertheless, the CCF campaigns have shown that conservation can give positive results even with very vulnerable and inbred species like the cheetah.

For more information, visit the Cheetah Conservation Fund Website


Comments are closed.