By Dr Laurie Marker, Founder/Executive Director, Cheetah Conservation Fund
Can conservation combined with science and technology save the cheetah for future generations? And, if so, how are captive cheetahs helping their vulnerable wild counter-parts in this race for survival?
The Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) is based in the heart of cheetah country, near Otjiwarongo, within the Waterberg Conservancy. CCF’s international hub of cheetah research and conservation is dedicated to the conservation of wild cheetahs and is helping answer these questions by employing a variety of integrated approaches in species conservation strategies.
These strategies include teaching human/wildlife conflict resolution, livestock and wildlife management, ecology and the predator’s role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem, education and awareness, and basic and applied biological research. Captive cheetahs are a part of this strategy and play an important role in long-term conservation of wild populations, as they represent important gene pools and form a safeguard in case of disaster amongst the wild populations.
The world’s fastest land mammal, the cheetah, is known to reach speeds of over 110 kilometres an hour for short distances and is unique among the 36 species of cats. The fast and elegant cheetah is considered one of Africa’s most rare big cats, with a worldwide population of less than 10 000 individuals in Africa and less than 100, the last of the Asian cheetahs, in Iran. In addition, about 1 400 cheetahs are found in captivity in 165 zoos in 65 countries of the world.
The cheetah is the only species in its own genus, Acinonyx, and suffers from inbreeding due to a historic genetic bottleneck that occurred approximately 10 000 years ago, leaving it genetically compromised. Because of this evolutionary phenomenon, all cheetahs are genetically similar, which makes them more susceptible to disease and reproductive abnormalities.
This has manifested itself through poor sperm quality, about 70% being abnormal. This lack of genetic variation also makes the species more vulnerable to ecological and evolutionary changes and, due to such small cheetah populations, more intensive management becomes necessary for their survival and recovery.
Namibia prides itself on being the Cheetah Capital of the World, with over 3 000 individuals living in the north-central and western areas of the country. As 95% of Namibia’s cheetah population lives on the same lands as livestock farmers, conflict between the two continues.
Since founding the CCF in 1990 and developing our international base in Namibia in 1991, we have had great success in working with farmers living with cheetahs on their land. This has led to over half of the nearly 800 cheetahs we have worked with to be released back into the wild.
But there are always orphaned and injured cheetahs and we have given them a large, peaceful sanctuary at CCF. These cheetahs, not able to make it in the wild due to behavioural or medical problems, are a part of ongoing research to understand cheetah biology, physiology and behaviour better.
At our open-to-the-public Research and Education Centre outside Otjiwarongo, CCF’s captive cheetahs have contributed significantly to science. Captive breeding does not take place at the CCF in Namibia, as it is not allowed by law, due to the principle of keeping cheetahs wild and free, the ultimate goal in saving the species. However, we recently announced an amazing breakthrough in cheetah reproductive physiology. This resulted from a more than 20-year collaboration with colleagues from the Smithsonian Institute and the University of California at Davis, USA.
In mid-2007, we implemented new culture systems with our reproductive studies to optimise embryo development so that the first-ever in vitro cheetah embryos reached the blastocyst stage and were frozen for storage in the Cheetah Conservation Fund’s Genome Resource Bank, a reservoir of frozen genetic and biological materials.
The oocytes (eggs) used to produce these historical embryos were collected from Nestlé and Hershey, two of the CCF’s resident non-releasable cheetahs, of which four blastocysts from Nestlé were frozen. What makes this even more exciting is that the sperm used was collected over two years ago from a resident CCF male, Cruise, and had been frozen and stored in the CCF’s Genome Resource Bank. This proves that the techniques we are researching at CCF to freeze and thaw cheetah sperm are viable.
Another major breakthrough in these studies was made when the timing of aspiration (collection) of oocytes was established at 28 to 30 hours post hormone treatment. Building on what was discovered last year, we were able to take this research to the next level with the help of the captive cheetahs living at the CCF, as a large enough sample size was needed to test different incubation conditions needed by embryos to develop successfully.
All these me-thods have been established internationally using domestic cats as models, but need to be adapted for each wild carnivore species. The CCF’s resident cheetahs have been invaluable to this scientific process.
While in vitro fertilisation is relatively routine in many other species, including humans, carnivores have proven to be a challenge when it comes to assisted reproduction, thus pioneering methodologies need to be developed. In order to grow cheetah embryos in vitro successfully, the correct temperature, CO2 and growth mediums which are specific to cheetah embryos needed to be established.
Theoretically, eggs could be harvested in the future from female cheetahs caught in the wild. After the eggs are recovered, they could be fertilised in the lab. In this way capturing the genetics of both males and females and propagating their genes can take place without removing cheetahs from the wild. This is the first time that this technology has been available to pursue this option.
The joint research project targets the reproductive biology of captive female cheetahs, which are notoriously difficult when it comes to breeding. Although none of the cheetahs at CCF will carry a fertilised embryo through pregnancy, the techniques devised here will help institutions to manage and breed their cheetahs better and to perpetuate and perfect the captive gene pool if necessary to assist wild cheetah populations.
In-vitro fertilisation will allow us to use this technique in last-ditch efforts to help small populations of cheetahs in the future. But, we need to know how to do it. This is why research and maintaining viable, genetically healthy populations are so important.
Today, the problems for wildlife are so enormous that it is vital to apply all resources available for intensive management as efficiently and effectively as possible. This breakthrough in cheetah reproductive research has far-reaching implications for the conservation of cheetah and demonstrates the benefits of an integrated approach of both captive and wild cheetah conservation programmes to ensure the survival of the species.
The CCF continues to conduct groundbreaking science and works with renowned international partners in a variety of areas to do so. Although saving habitat is the ultimate goal in saving cheetahs, understanding all aspects of the cheetah’s biology, physiology and ecological needs is critical to saving the cheetah for future generations.
In 2007, Dr Laurie Marker, the CCF’s Founder and Executive Director, and other key CCF staff attended important workshops in Kenya and Botswana to develop range-wide priority conservation plans for the cheetah and the African wild dog.
These meetings were for the East and Southern African region in collaboration with the Cat and Canid Specialist Groups of the IUCN, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and the Howard Buffett Foundation’s African Cheetah Initiative. Cheetahs and wild dogs have very similar conservation requirements and strategies.
To sustain and increase their declining populations encourages the incorporation of cheetah and wild dog conservation requirements into land-use planning, human wildlife conflict resolution strategies that cross borders, and the development of training and capacity-building programmes.
There is also the need to identify priority sites for the conservation of wild dogs and cheetahs and foster appreciation for their conservation, encouraging policymakers to incorporate wild-dog and cheetah conservation requirements into land-use planning at both national and regional scales, and to prepare specific global and national conservation action plans for cheetahs and wild dogs.
Both the cheetah and the wild dog have extremely large home ranges and live at low densities, with the majority of their populations living outside protected areas where conflict mitigation strategies must be employed. Due to the success of the CCF’s long-term projects, many of these served as models for the strategic planning process.
This article appeared in the 2008/9 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.