WHY are captive bred cheetah not often getting released back into the wild?
This is the question on many people’s minds, and the answer is not that simple. Firstly most uninformed people have the strange ability to place all Africa’s big cats under one proverbial umbrella. This is a huge misconception as they are individual species and need to be treated according to their specific needs and traits. For instance to rewild a lion is almost impossible, but I say almost, as it has and can be achieved.
The cheetah on the other hand has a far higher release success rate, but even this takes a huge amount of knowledge, effort and dedication, and of course is a very costly initiative. So I’ll ask again, why this not is been done.
The cheetah population in South Africa is also totally different from other countries like Namibia and Kenya. The South African cheetah faces different threats, mostly predation by lions and hyenas. We dont have many free roaming cheetah, most of them exists in reserves. But we do not have enough "cheetah safe" reserves where they can survive without the constant stress of getting killed by apex predators. This puts pressure on them to escape from reserves (especially reserves where the fencing is not up to standard), and they find themselves on farmers / tribal land where they often get shot for killing livestock.
So many cheetah are relocated onto Big 5 reserves without equipping the cheetah with proper predator avoidance skills. Most of these cheetah will be killed within a few weeks by lions and hyenas. But this is still being implemented by the "professionals". This is nothing but human error. One reserve has a female who lost 4 litters of cubs to lions and hyenas. 4 litters over 5 years. This is once again human error. She could have been moved to another cheetah friendly reserve, but because tourists get priority over conservation, she had to endure this trauma, time after time.
Well let’s start off with the financial side of the matter. To rear a cheetah in captivity, stimulate, train it to hunt, de-humanize the animal, relocate and monitor an individual cat takes around two and a half years, furthermore the animal needs to then be monitored for at least six months after its release to ensure its survival. This alone and excluding any major veterinary bills will put you back around R300 000, 00 with no financial gain at the end of the day. So who in their right state of mind is willing to throw R300 000.00 down the drain for an individual cat, let alone four or five a year.
Secondly, to train a cheetah to not only hunt successfully but to hunt the correct prey species (which has already been done by us successfully) needs one main factor, and that is a large expanse of land which most breeding projects do not have access to. Furthermore this land needs to house the typical prey species that in turn need to be replenished ever so often.
Thirdly, there is no handbook of how to successfully train and release a cheetah available on the bookstore shelf. So trial and error, learn from others mistakes, time, dedication, passion combined with extensive knowledge is the only way to obtain the end goal, some of these factors are also lacking at some projects.
And all these cheetahs need to have a clean bill of health prior to release, thus extensive blood work and DNA screening needs to be done to ensure diseases are not carried into wild populations.
So to put this all into perspective, a breeding project willing to release captive bred cheetahs into the wild will basically need the following, a massive budget, a huge expanse of land filled with the correct prey species, extensive knowledge, tons of patients and time on their hands, and the passion and dedication to save a species for future generations by re-wilding and re-introducing them back into the wild.
An impossible combination you might think, well think again.
In South Africa right now there are enough people with the passion, dedication and knowledge to fulfil that specific need, land to perform the hunting training can be acquired or leased, sponsorship to fund this type of project is out there, and breeders need to join these dedicated people to help build a sustainable wild cheetah population.
If the human race can raise over $85 million overnight to help natural disaster victims, surely they can do the same for animals on the verge of extinction.
With responsible and selective breeding protocols, the correct hunting training regime, thorough de-humanising techniques to avoid human contact post release, proper post release monitoring strategies and with very selective relocation areas, cheetah release is possible and the only way to ensure the species can survive in South Africa. This has been done before, take the examples of Joyce Adamson (from Born Free), Anne Van Dyke and Simon King, who hand reared cheetah cubs and successfully released them into the wild.
The argument of a hand reared cheetah coming into conflict with humans is preventable, as the released cheetah needs to be released onto appropriate reserves where they cannot escape and be monitored to ensure its movements do not encroach onto human settlements.
The second argument that hand reared cats have no fear of natural predators can also be overcome with correct predator avoidance programme, or once again that the cats need to be release onto predator free areas.
It’s very easy to sit behind a desk and come up with all these excuses regarding why captive cheetahs should not be rewilded.
What these so called conservationists and activists should be doing is scouting the country for projects that have overcome the problems facing the historical failures of re-wilding, joining them in their efforts and building on those project's strengths. But then again passion and dedication is needed for this to happen and that is the reason cheetahs will become extinct within the next few decades… because people have lost the passion for our wildlife heritage and greed gets priority over real conservation.
Reproduce, rewild and re-introduce!
Give back their right to be free. We owe it to them.
"When we return wild animals to nature, we merely return them to what is already theirs. For man cannot give wild animals freedom, they can only take it away." - Jacques Cousteau
RUNNING WILD CONSERVATION - Giving back freedom