Can the cheetah be saved? Should it be?

August 3, 2010

Note: This post is written on behalf of Jenny Carr (née Goldstein), in honor of her being the the first to correctly answer the hardest math problem in my GRE prep book.

ZooBorns

Cheetahs are a hot mess. Darn cute as cubs (see right and below), but a hot mess.

According to the Cheetah Conservation Fund, in 1900, there were 100,000 cheetahs in 44 countries throughout Africa and Asia. As of 200o the number had dwindled to just 12,500 in 26 African countries. Another 1,000 or so cheetahs live in captivity. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) as vulnerable, meaning it’s on its way to being endangered unless something changes.

Here’s part of what cheetahs are up against, according to Scientific American:

The chief threats to the cheetah’s existence are loss of habitat, poaching and hunting (their hide and trophies can command top dollar), and getting shot by livestock farmers. Decline of gazelles, wildebeests, impalas and other preferred prey species (also due to hunting and habitat loss) is a factor, too.

According to CCF, throughout Africa cheetah numbers are dwindling even within protected wildlife reserves due to increased competition from other larger predators like lions and hyenas. As a result, most protected areas are unable to maintain viable cheetah populations, so individual cats tend to fan out beyond wildlife reserves, placing them in greater danger of conflict with humans. Those cheetahs that do survive in the wild come from a smaller, less diverse gene pool, leaving them susceptible to disease and predation in their own right. Furthermore, captive breeding has proven tricky, and wildlife biologists are not optimistic that such efforts can have a measurable positive impact on the cheetah’s future.

Some might argue the cheetah isn’t fit for this world. We all know cheetahs are crazy fast. They can reach speeds up to perhaps 70 mph for short stretches. But their overclocked performance leaves them too winded to defend their kills. Cheetahs lose about half of their meals to other predators such as lions, leopards and hyenas.

ZooBorns

The cheetah’s basic design flaw is compounded by inbreeding. Researchers estimate that 12,000 years ago, cheetahs went through a population “bottleneck” — some catastrophe that killed all but a few of the animals, which then interbred. Guy Gugliotta writes in the Smithsonian that cheetahs are “flawed creatures. They have a low fertility rate, a high incidence of birth defects and weak immune systems.”

Starting in 1980, researchers affiliated with the National Zoo began to examine the cheetah’s reproductive characteristics and conduct the first-ever studies of cheetah DNA. The zoo sent a research team to South Africa to obtain semen and blood samples from about 80 cheetahs at a refuge. Wildt, then a reproductive biologist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was studying cat biology. He examined the semen under a microscope and found shockingly low sperm counts—about 10 percent of the norm for other felines. And there were huge numbers of malformed sperm—about 70 percent in each sample. This explained the animals’ low fertility.

And further:

In Oregon, Wildt and O’Brien took skin samples from eight Wildlife Safari cheetahs and grafted them onto other cheetahs. Ordinarily, as in human transplants, a host will reject a donor organ unless there is a close tissue match and an assist from immunosuppressant drugs. But the cheetah grafts were accepted in every case. This was disturbing news, for it meant that their immune systems were so similar that almost every cheetah in the world had the same vulnerability to the same diseases. In fact, in 1982, Wildlife Safari lost 60 percent of its cheetahs to an epidemic of viral peritonitis. “It went through the center like wildfire,” Marker says. The same disease in any genetically diverse cat population could be expected to kill 2 percent to 5 percent of its victims.

ZooBorns

The most obvious way to save the cheetahs would be to increase their habitats, but if India is any example, that may be infeasible:

[L]ocal governments appear reluctant to set aside the amount of land that would be necessary for the cheetah to survive in the wild. “I don’t think it’s a wise idea,” said R. N. Mehrotra, chief wildlife warden for the Indian state of Rajasthan, at a meeting of the Wildlife Trust of India’s (WTI) Cheetah Reintroduction Project held [in 2009] to discuss the feasibiliy of reintroducing the species.

Zoos have had some success at getting cheetahs to reproduce, with the caveat that captive cheetahs show signs of elevated stress hormones, which may help explain why they are prone to diseases such as H. pylori-mediated gastritis and feline infectious peritonitis. Back to the Smithsonian:

Within the captive cheetah population of 225 in the United States and Canada, the death rate has exceeded the birth rate during 10 of the past 12 years. The center’s near-term goal is to make cheetahs self-sustaining in captivity. The long-term goal, says Wildt, is to “have it all”—to improve captive cheetahs’ meager genetic diversity with sperm from wild cats and to use sperm from captive cheetahs to impregnate females in the wild.

I’m absolutely no expert, but cheetahs are so inbred I question whether a gene swap like that would have much effect.

That doesn’t mean cheetah conservation is out of the question. The CCF has apparently stabilized the world’s largest population of cheetahs — a group of 3,000 in Namibia.

In Namibia, 95 percent of cheetahs live on territory owned by ranchers. When Marker first got there, ranchers typically called cheetah “vermin” and killed about 600 every year. Marker’s plan was simple. From the Windhoek airport, she traveled north in her Land Rover toward Otjiwarongo, “going door-to-door, talking to two farmers a day,” she says, asking them how they managed their cattle herds, what they thought about the wildlife on their property and what problems they thought cheetahs were causing.

Marker shared her expertise as it grew. Cheetahs could not kill full-grown cattle, she explained, so ranchers might want to focus on protecting newborn calves. Cheetahs would rather eat wild game than risk an encounter with humans, she said, so instead of driving game away, ranchers should learn to live with it.

In case you’re wondering how much these efforts cost, in 2008, the fund spent $1.4 million.

Ok, now that we’ve set the stage, let’s play devil’s advocate: Given the problems the cheetah faces, does it deserve to be a darling of the conservation set? Would additional resources be better spent elsewhere? Or would a world without cheetahs be too unthinkable to ponder? Holy crap, now I know how Tom Ashbrook feels. Anyway, whatever. You get the point. Discuss!

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2 Responses to “Can the cheetah be saved? Should it be?”

  1. Amos Says:

    Yes, cheetahs should be saved. They’re hella cool. Pandas ought to go away.

    • dbiello Says:

      Charismatic megafauna will always be worth saving. But can we spare a few dimes for the unloved nematodes, microbes and other biota winking out of existence too?


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