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.

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