When humans use analogies of strength and courage, they often conjure up images of large, predatory cats. Lions are king of the jungle. The eye of the tiger indicates a sharp and determined mind that misses no detail. There is even a brand of athletic shoes named Puma, a less than subtle suggestion of how one might expect to perform athletically if wearing that brand. But times are actually quite tough for big cats everywhere, paradoxically including the one with the title of fastest land mammal, the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus).
Cheetahs endure many of the same threats as other large cats: habitat loss and fragmentation, killing and capture as livestock predators and trade on the black market for body parts and the exotic pet trade. There has been an estimated 30 percent loss in the wild cheetah population during the last 18 years, which is not difficult to believe given that 50-75 percent of cheetah cubs die within months.
There is another threat to cheetahs that is uniquely their own, known as low genetic variation. About 10,000 years ago, there were different species of cheetahs living in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America. But something cataclysmic happened and severely reduced cheetah populations worldwide. In order for the species to survive, related cheetahs had to breed. Today, all cheetahs share 99 percent of the same DNA. To give you reference, related individuals in other species usually only share approximately 80 percent of their DNA. In theory, this low genetic variation significantly increases vulnerability to a single disease destroying the entire cheetah population because their immune systems are identical. With estimates of only 7,500 to 10,000 cheetahs in the wild, this is a valid concern.
Cheetahs have many champions, including the Cheetah Conservation Fund, an organization that combines research, education, conservation and international collaboration to prevent cheetah extinction. CCF also sponsors International Cheetah Day, which is this Wednesday, December 4. The Founder and Executive Director, Dr. Laurie Marker will be providing a “State of the Cheetah” address as part of the events to take place. Dr. Marker helped develop the U.S. and international captive cheetah program over 16 years (1974-1988) while at Oregon’s Wildlife Safari in the USA. Dr. Marker also helped identify the cheetah’s lack of genetic variation while working with the National Zoo and National Cancer Institute (USA).
Since 1974, the Saint Louis Zoo has been dedicated to saving cheetahs and other species in what is now known as the Center for Conservation of Large Carnivores in Africa. In addition to coordinating the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Cheetah Species Survival Plan (SSP), the Saint Louis Zoo has partnered with multiple African NGOs and governmental organizations to aid in working with humans who reside in wild cheetah range. The Center supports the Global Cheetah Action Plan & Global Cheetah Forum, South Africa, through workshops that educate people living near cheetahs about its importance as a species in the ecosystem along with livestock and game management.
While Saint Louis Zoo coordinates the Cheetah SSP, the support within AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums does not end there. According to the AZA, the AZA Felid Taxon Advisory Group and Cheetah SSP manage over 250 cheetahs in 54 AZA-accredited zoos. Cheetahs are difficult to breed in captivity, yet the ex situ cheetah population within AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums have developed reproduction techniques that resulted in over ten litters of cubs. It is possible that these techniques will be used to support and/or supplement the in situ cheetah population.
The AZA Conservation Endowment Fund, and one of its sub-funds, the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, has provided over $90,000 in support of cheetah conservation projects including Cheetah Conservation Botswana for community outreach programs for predator conservation near game ranches, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium for a field workshop on cheetah censoring techniques to study their population dynamics, the Cheetah Conservation Fund to develop a Visitor Education Center in Namibia, Africa which emphasizes the values of cheetahs within the ecosystem and to expand their educational program and to evaluate conservation strategies for the long-term survival of the cheetah. In addition, AZA funds go to Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species at the San Diego Zoo, Oregon Zoo, and Oklahoma City Zoological Park for their cooperative effort in correlating the reproductive success and management styles of ex situ cheetahs.
Cheetahs are important simply because they are. They have their own niche in the ecosystem and have persevered in the face of incredible odds stacked against them. That alone is sufficient reason to support cheetah conservation efforts. And we must be careful in how we protect them. Indeed, this may be a species better left out of ecotourism as much as possible. While it is thrilling to visit exotic locations and observe wild behaviors, ecotourism can disrupt the balance. Cheetahs are often followed by tourists who inadvertently interfere with attempts to stalk and kill prey, as a recently popularized video demonstrates.
The cheetah story is just one of many examples of how biologists, veterinarians, keepers and aquarists at zoos and aquariums throughout the world are collaborating with governmental organizations, non-governmental organizations and even corporations to conserve and preserve the natural world.
How will you honor International Cheetah Day?