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Cheetah Conservation Hopes Pinned on "Ambassador" Cat

Leon Marshall in South Africa
for National Geographic News
June 17, 2004
 
A cheetah called Byron was received like royalty this week at a school
in a sprawling black township on the outskirts of South Africa's
capital, Pretoria. The pupils at the Kguagelo School called him a
prince. Their choir sang, and they read a poem they had written for him.

Also known as the "cheetah ambassador," the tame animal is frequently taken to schools and to meetings with farmers and local communities as part of an initiative to win people's hearts and minds over to the cause—and ultimate survival—of this fleet-footed big cat.

Once roaming throughout much of Africa and Asia, today only some 12,000 cheetahs are believed to be surviving in the wild—almost all of them in patches of east and southern Africa. Many of them are trying to live on farmland, where they frequently come into fatal conflict with humans.



The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is listed as endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Treaty.

As human populations expand and development consumes more and more of the cheetah's natural habitat and prey (mostly gazelles), the feline's fate looks dark.

Cheetah Ambassador

Byron, the princely ambassador for cheetahs, is playing a vital role in an ambitious plan to conserve and restore cheetah populations in southern Africa.

At his numerous outings to schools and farming communities, people are encouraged to get up real close with one of nature's most accomplished predators. They are allowed to stroke Byron's soft body fur and tail in the hope that the hands-on experience will open their eyes to the animal's extraordinary beauty and inspire them to support the cheetah's cause.

With the indifference typical of cats, Byron takes all this human contact in his stride, alternatively sitting up regally or flopping nonchalantly on his side while purring contentedly.

But changing human attitudes toward cheetahs is only part of the battle to save Earth's fastest land mammal. The big cat also has genetic problems—poor diversity within the species and a propensity for disease and unsuccessful breeding. Researchers and conservationists are coming up with ways to mix up the genetic diversity within the remaining cheetahs as much as possible, to strengthen their bloodline and build resistance. New ways are also being tried to improve their breeding success.

Some experts believe the cheetah's genetic problems could go back 10,000 years, when climate changes might have been responsible for drastic reductions in the big cat's numbers. Others blame over-hunting of the animal that started more than a century ago. Fragmentation of habitat and pesticides may also be factors.

Whatever the causes, the "bottleneck" in the cheetah's evolution might have led to substantial inbreeding among the few animals that survived, which could be the reason why it is a relatively weak breeder and a generally fragile creature whose immune system also seems suspect.

The De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre, situated in the hilly bush country northwest of Pretoria, is behind the strategy to save the cheetah on two fronts: boosting its breeding success and improving the cat's standing with humans.

The center was founded 30 years ago by Ann van Dyk on her family farm and is authorized under CITES to capture, breed, and trade in cheetahs. CITES is an international agreement between governments, aimed at ensuring that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.

Howard G. Buffett

Also involved is Howard G. Buffett, son of multimillionaire Warren Buffett. Howard is an Illinois agri-businessman and widely published agricultural and wildlife photographer who has traveled extensively throughout the developing world. His photographs have appeared in National Geographic magazine, and he is the author of On the Edge: Balancing Life's Resources, a book on the world's population and what it means for food consumption.

Buffett and Van Dyk met about six years ago after he saw a television feature on her efforts to save the cheetah. His passion for the conservation project was such that he bought a farm near De Wildt, where he has set up facilities and secure camps for cheetah research and breeding, and where cheetah captured on unfriendly ranches are kept while awaiting placement on friendly estates.

The selective-breeding part of their two-pronged battle to support the conservation of cheetahs involves DNA and blood tests. The program also uses microchips implanted in to animals born in captivity as well as those captured and removed from places where they are at risk from hunting. The microchips emit electronic signals which are used to track the whereabouts of the cats.

Each animal's breeding history is logged in the International Cheetah Studbook kept at the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. The book gives each animal a stud number and record card, and notes all births, deaths, imports, and transfers of cheetah.

"The microchip-marking offers a way of keeping track of captured and captive-born animals when they are relocated to game ranches and nature reserves," Van Dyk said. This helps ensure they do not end up in the illegal trade or get used for "canned hunting"—the releasing of tame animals to make easy targets for big-paying trophy hunters.

The logging of each animal's details, which De Wildt has been doing for many years, is of particular help with its selective-breeding program.

While extraordinarily agile, with the ability to go from a standing position to 45 mph (72 kmh) in two seconds and to reach speeds of up to 71 mph (114 kmh), cheetahs are relatively fragile and unable to stand up for themselves against competing predators.

"Studies show low fertility levels in male cheetahs," said Kelly Wilson, a master's student involved with the De Wildt project. "Cub survival is exceptionally low in the wild, and they seem unusually susceptible to feline infections. All of which point to low gene diversity."

Cheetah do not breed easily in captivity, which complicates efforts to build up their populations. But some years ago De Wildt made a breakthrough in this regard.

Van Dyk explained that young males stay in groups and often attack females, who are solitary and are particularly vulnerable in small enclosures where they are easily cornered.

Lovers' Lane

To overcome the problem, a "lovers' lane" was created where males could troop past separate female enclosures. When a couple show an interest in each other, the male would be put into the female's cage for them to mate. But this would not happen before a careful study of their lineage.

De Wildt has for many years been logging the details of all its animals to prevent in-breeding by ensuring that only animals from different parentage and preferably from different parts of the country are paired for breeding purposes.

"In this way we may be able to strengthen the species. It will take a long time, but we need to create a better gene pool," said Van Dyk.

Through selective breeding De Wildt is also able to breed the rare and beautiful king cheetah, which has such different markings that it was originally thought to be a different species but which in fact comes from a recessive gene in normal cheetahs.

Meanwhile, the hearts-and-minds part of the two-pronged battle to safeguard the cheetah was started only recently but is already showing promising results.

Because of its hunting habit of running down its prey with sheer speed, cheetahs prefer open expanses where they tend to be visible and vulnerable. Compounding the problem, said Van Dyk, is that their prowess as hunters cause them to be bitterly hated by livestock and game ranchers.

"There are gruesome stories about things farmers would do to cheetah for killing their stock, despite the animal being legally protected," she said.

This is where Byron comes in. The tame cheetah is the ambassador for his species at meetings with humans. He was also the star attraction at the launch of a glossy photography book on cheetahs produced by Buffett and Van Dyk.

Cheetahs' Future

Cheetahs are by nature gentle animals and easily tamed. The ancient Egyptians reared them as pets, and in India they were used as hunting animals, before becoming extinct there.

Van Dyk said she was hugely impressed when, at the Spier training facility in the Cape where Byron was sent as a cub, she saw children come up in groups to touch him. She saw the ecstasy on their faces and realized that, to save cheetahs, one had to start with children.

Now the cheetah is being taken to schools where pupils will be able to touch him as part of an education project to teach them about the endangered species and about environmental care in general.

Van Dyk also has plans to convert farmers and local communities. "Our hope is that, by seeing a cheetah at close quarters, by looking into its soft eyes and being able to touch and stroke it, more people will be stirred into protecting it," she said.

The project includes persuading farmers to have troublesome cheetah captured rather than killing them. They get rewarded 10,000 rand (U.S. $1,300) per cheetah, and the animals are then placed in enclosures on Buffett's farm where DNA and health tests are carried out while awaiting their relocation to well-disposed ranches and reserves.

The cheetahs are kept in enclosures and are used for pairing, also with animals bred in captivity, as a further way of promoting their numbers and their gene pool.

Seventy-nine cheetah have been saved in this way. Land owners who accept the captured cheetah, and who protect the species on their ranches and reserves, receive signboards from De Wildt declaring them to be cheetah-friendly.

An important facet of the project is an experiment on Buffett's farm where two translocated males are kept in a well-fenced enclosure of about a thousand hectares, where they are free to hunt the antelope.

The purpose is to prove that cheetah can thrive on a land area of this size. Government regulations stipulate that wild cheetah may only be kept on estates of at least 5,000 hectares, with enough game for them to survive on for a minimum of two years.

By proving that it is possible to keep them safely on pieces of land as small as 1,000 hectares, De Wildt hopes the authorities will allow it to propagate the species by enabling it to distribute it to many more land owners who are presently excluded because of the limited size of their land.

Buffett says the experiment will take two years. "We must try to get cheetah released into more free-ranging areas. The way things are, we are going to run out of places to put them."

Professor Kobus Bothma, director of the Centre for Wildlife Management at the University of Pretoria, said keeping cheetah in smaller areas than the prescribed minimum size means they will not be as self-sufficient as in the case of big reserves.

"It will have to be ensured they have sufficient prey, and breeding will need to be controlled, unlike big estates where it can be a natural process of groups of males splitting off and mating happens freely. It becomes a system of mega-management as against controlled breeding in small enclosures," Bothma said.

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