Cheetah conservation 101

2012-06-11 16:28
 Remember that part in the Lion King when Zazu delivers the morning report to Mufasa? You know, just before he gets pounced on by little Simba?

Well, it's a magnificent bit of wildlife wordplay and goes something like this: "The buzz from the bees is that the leopards are in a bit of a spot. And the baboons are going ape over this. Of course, the giraffes are acting like they're above it all... The tick birds are pecking on the elephants. I told the elephants to forget it, but they can't," ending with something of a haunting phrase "The cheetahs are hard up, but I always say, cheetahs never prosper... "

Given the fact that Cheetah numbers have dropped dramatically from 100 000 throughout Africa, the Middle East and parts of Central Asia at the start of the 20th century to only 7500 today, this last little nugget of Zazu's news broadcast actually may have hit the nail right on the head.

Photo: Cheetah and cubs. From: true-wildlife.blogspot.com

According to Kelly Marnewick and Vincent van der Merwe from Endangered Wildlife Trust's (EWT) Cheetah Metapopulation program, there are possibly only 70 to 110 Asian Cheetah left in the world today, all residing in Iran. An almost unthinkable figure.

Fortunately, cheetah numbers in South Africa are a lot less dire, as there are an estimated 400 - 700 roaming around in the wild at present, and projects like the one Kelly and Vincent run are doing much to keep it that way. Working within 43 small reserves across the country, with a total of 204 cheetah, their focus is to keep the gene pool as diverse as possible, so that these big cats do not fall into the same tragic trap as two of their most genetically endangered feline relatives, the Florida Panther and the Amur Leopard.

Photo: Amur Leopard. From beauty-animal.blogspot.com

The Florida panther, a subspecies of the cougar, was so dangerously close to extinction due to low genetic diversity in the 1970s that other cougar subspecies had to be released in Florida to beef up the gene pool. Their numbers have subsequently increased from 20 to approximately 130. The Amur Leopard, found in south eastern Russia and North Korea, has however not been so lucky as only 14 - 20 adults and 5 - 6 cubs were counted in a 2007 census. Several generations of inbreeding has resulted in such genetic degeneration that the remaining population may not survive for too much longer.

Cheetah do have considerably more genetic diversity than previously thought, but EWT's Metapopulation Program aims to maximize the gene pool by moving the cats between reserves. 
However, dubious genetics isn't the only threat facing the fastest land mammal today, as Kelly cites that threats such as larger predators, illegal trade and human conflict also have an impact.

While the EWT is doing all it can to promote and maintain a healthy wild Cheetah population, a variety of captive Cheetah programs are playing an important role in creating awareness around the conservation of these majestic creatures.

Perhaps one of the longest-running and most highly regarded of these programs, is Spier's Cheetah Outreach. While the project has become practically synonymous with the famous Stellenbosch wine farm, things are about to be shaken up a bit with their recent relocation to Paardevlei in Somerset West.

According to the program's education officer, Dawn Glover, they currently have 10 Cheetah (six ambassadors and four retired), two meerkat, two black backed jackal, four serval, five bat-eared fox and one caracal in their care, all settling into their new home quite happily.

Photo: Cheetah Outreach's Chobe runs along a beach close to Paardevlei

"All of our animals (small mammals and cheetah) are born in captivity, handraised and habituated to humans. Because Cheetah are not instinctive hunters - they usually spend up to 2 years learning from their mother how to survive in the wild - the animals are not suitable for release into the wild," Dawn explains.

The new Paardevlei enclosure borders a rehabilitated wetland, and the Cheetah running enclosure is situated alongside. A large viewing platform with elevated seating provides fantastic views of the ambassador enclosures, the running enclosures and the wetland.

In the light of the recent Cheetah attack at the Kragga Kamma reserve near PE, people may be worried about the safety of close encounters with these creatures. Dawn, however, ensures that Cheetah Outreach has the most comprehensive safety protocols and a very high safety record.

She added that Cheetah are typically less aggressive than certain other big cats, stating that: "due to their adaptations for speed, Cheetah are very easily injured in a fight so they are non-aggressive compared to the other big cats. Cheetah will also see adult humans as a larger predator and tend to avoid conflict with them."

For more information on Cheetah Outreach, check out their website and their price list.

A few fast Cheetah facts courtesy of EWT:

• The Cheetah is the only extant member of its genus Acinonyx. This genus previously includes two other species including Acinonyx pardinensis that was considerably larger (up to 100kg) than the modern Cheetah and was found in Europe, India and China. The closest living relative of the Cheetah is the Cougar (Puma concolor).

• There is only one surviving population of Cheetah in Asia. This population is found in Khorasan Province, Iran and is thought to include 70 to 110 individuals. Steps are being taken to conserve these last remaining Asiatic Cheetah. A second population may survive in Balochistan Province, Pakistan where a dead Cheetah was recently discovered.

• The cheetah achieves by far the fastest land speed of any living animal-between 112 and 120 km/h. The second fastest land mammal is the Pronghorn from North America which reaches speeds of 98km/h.

• This Cheetah is notable for modifications in its paws. It is one of the only felids with semi-retractable claws and with pads that are modified for extra grip when running at speed and.

Photo: King Cheetah

• The king cheetah is a rare colour morph characterized by a distinct fur pattern. It was first noted in what was then Southern Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe) in 1926. In 1927, the naturalist Reginald Innes Pocock declared it a separate species, but reversed this decision in 1939 due to lack of evidence, but in 1928, a skin purchased by Walter Rothschild was found to be intermediate in pattern between the king cheetah and spotted cheetah and Abel Chapman considered it to be a color form of the spotted cheetah. Twenty-two such skins were found between 1926 and 1974. Since 1927, the king cheetah was reported five more times in the wild. Although strangely marked skins had come from Africa, a live king cheetah was not photographed until 1974 in Kruger National Park. It is a recessive gene.

• During the Middle Ages, hunting with cheetahs was a popular noble game in India. Akbar the Great, the Mogul emperor, had over 1 000 cheetahs. Cheetah are now extinct from India.

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