IT IS extremely concerning that there is a trend in contributors to social and published media recently to tar all animal facilities that keep cheetahs for breeding and public awareness with the same brush
They use attention-grabbing headlines, sweeping statements and selected scientific peer-reviewed research references (or none), regardless of authenticity.
While as in any other industry there are indeed some less ethical players, there are also a number of passionate organisations in the zoo community dedicated to the long-term well-being and conservation of the cheetah as a species.
“Ambassador cheetahs” have played a pivotal role in curriculum-linked education and awareness programmes, locally and worldwide.
Their welfare is of great concern to the various facilities which are ethical and responsible regarding the husbandry, care and welfare of the cheetahs in their custodianship.
Recent research at Cheetah Outreach, as part of a Master’s dissertation for a UK university, undertook to investigate the effect of display and close encounters on the behaviour and heart rate of hand-raised cheetahs at the facility.
The findings showed there was no negative behaviour during encounters - in fact purring, a clear indication of a cheetah’s state of comfortability and mind, increased.
The research concluded that there was “no clear evidence of visitor presence negatively affecting the behaviour” of ambassadors at Cheetah Outreach.
Although they had the choice to be away from public view and contact, ambassador cheetahs also migrated to be as close to the public as possible, which they would not do if they were stressed.
Internationally, ambassador cheetah programmes have raised significant funding for conservation programmes throughout Africa.
The founders of Cheetah Outreach, was inspired after an encounter with a hand-raised cheetah to start the award- winning Cheetah Outreach Trust, which has placed over 280 livestock-guarding dogs on farms to mitigate human-wildlife conflict.
This removes the need for farmers to trap and shoot endangered cheetah by protecting the livestock from all predators.
Cheetah Outreach has also been recognised by the Conservation Authority for the expertise of the field officers working in the farming community to mitigate cheetah and other predator conflict with farmers.
The Conservation Authorities in the cheetah distribution range actively use the Cheetah Outreach field officers to assist with farmer-predator conflict situations and in some cases to alleviate the conflict with farmers by collecting and relocating cheetah, leopard and other predators trapped by farmers.
Ambassador cheetahs actively create awareness of this through interactions with the public, which in turn raise vital funds which help to conserve, protect and manage these predators within their natural areas, which include farmlands.
Cheetah Outreach also has a successful education programme which sees 5000 pupils annually and collaborates extensively with research endeavours.
The statement that the breeding of cheetahs in captivity is “not conservation and never will be”, is an emotively driven opinion not backed by fact and does not recognise the rapid decline in wild populations due to human-wildlife conflict and the crucial role of captive- bred cheetahs as an assurance population.
Many of the conservation organisations that are actively conducting valuable research and conservation work in the field receive vital funding from facilities and zoos locally and internationally which raise funds by creating awareness through ambassador cheetahs born in captivity.
It is a pity that some of the more prominent conservation organisations that receive this funding openly criticise the hand that feeds them.
Furthermore, captive cheetahs help to increase the overall number of cheetahs globally as they are not subject to predation or poaching and benefit from best-practice husbandry implemented by the ethical and well-managed facilities which have these captive cheetahs, ensuring longevity.
The African human population is expected to grow from 1 to 5billion in a short period, increasing the pressure on our free-ranging animals, and captive populations could well become the new Ark.
There are species worldwide that would be extinct in the wild were it not for managed captive breeding and reintroduction programmes funded by zoo institutions.
Contrary to Ms Louise De Waal’s statement, research undertaken by Cheetah Conservation Fund, Namibia has shown that the management of captive cheetahs has resulted in decreased inbreeding, while diversity continues to decrease in wild males
The captive population therefore could very well play an essential role in the genetic sustainability of our wild populations.
For this reason zoo organisations such as the Pan-African Association of Zoos and Aquaria actively promote and manage captive cheetah populations to ensure longevity and genetic integrity, taking away the need to remove cheetahs from the wild to supplement the captive population from a genetic point of view.
The new Threatened or Protected Species (Tops) regulations in South Africa will require all captive cheetah facilities to belong to a stud book, recognised and endorsed by the Department of Environmental Affairs, and supported by an unique DNA profile collected via a chain of custody, and entered into a national database which will feed into a international database.
This will also reduce inbreeding and promote responsible population management. DNA passports would be required for permits to transport cheetahs.
In some areas in the wild, only one in 10 cubs makes a year of age, with few wild adults surviving longer than 7-8 years, although they can reach 10-12 years. In captivity, 10-12 is the norm, with some animals living up to 16-17.
The link between diet and disease is a complicated issue and continues to be researched.
Recent research by Dr Adrian Tordiff focused on the potential impact on health of differences in fatty acids consumed in wild and captive diets, and concluded that “potential links between disease and FA composition of diet remain unclear” and future research needs to be more focused.
Continued research will enable all facilities to enrich and improve their protocols, and zoo associations to update their operational standards. For example, predator powder was developed after extensive research on diet for captive predators.
Articles previously published on the captive cheetah industry are riddled with ignorance, sensationalism, supposition and sweeping statements: “captive breeding still is in dispute”, “it is even suggested”, “is now thought”.
All these prove is that the statements lack fact and are not proven by scientific peer-reviewed research. For a balanced overview of the status of the cheetah, we would like to direct readers to Cheetahs: Biology and conservation, 2017, in the series Biodiversity of the World: Conservation from genes to landscapes.
Perhaps articles such as “Captive cheetah breeding is reaching epidemic proportions in South Africa” are better written by those with in-depth knowledge and respected local and international authority, not those with neither.
To conclude: “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” (Baba Dioum, 1968.)
Beckhelling is the founder of Cheetah Outreach Trust. Cilliers is the project manager of the Livestock-Guarding Dog Project, Cheetah Outreach.