As our spotlight on Cheetahs continues, a reminder of a key story that explores captive bred cheetahs as a viable conservation option.
In many centers in Africa, captive bred cheetahs are either displayed or sold to zoos and wealthy buyers from all over the world for profit. And just like with the selling of any commercial product, the centers have a marketing strategy to convince their customers that their money spent is worthwhile–conservation.
Despite few captive cheetahs have been released into the wild over the years, many cheetah breeding facilities claim that what they do preserve the gene pool of cheetahs so they could be released in case of the extinction of wild cheetahs.
At the first glimpse this seems to make sense. However, after taking the condition of captive cheetahs into consideration, it gets harder to agree with them; the difficulties to breed cheetah and captive-bred cheetahs’ inability to survive in the wild make the claim seems nothing more than a rosy illusion made with empty words.
Cheetahs don’t breed well in captivity. Due to the chronicle stress captive cheetahs suffer and their distinct breeding habits that are hard to replicate in a captive environment, their reproduction rate is significantly lower than other big cats in captivity.
In addition, captive cheetahs are especially prone to several diseases that are not common in wild cheetahs such as gastritis.
The difficulty of breeding captive cheetahs and their vulnerability to diseases put one at doubt of how much the practice of breeding cheetahs “preserve the gene pool”. Since these often unhealthy animals could hardly sustain their own population and sometimes even need wild cheetah for fresh genes, it seems more likely these captive cheetahs will simply die off if wild cheetahs indeed become extinct.
Even if the challenge of breeding cheetahs in captivity can be overcome, it seems unrealistic to expect these cage animals to fare well in the wild.
One of the reasons is that captive-bred cheetahs do not have the suitable genes for wild survival. The lack of evolutionary pressure in combination with artificial selection in captive facilities often produce “soft” cheetahs that are genetically designed to live the catered life of confinement rather than in the wild African land.
Besides, having spent their entire life in captivity before release, these cheetahs do not have the knowledge or skill to survive in the wild. They often try to catch preys that are far too large like rhinos, or fail to identify threats in their natural environment such as lions. As a result, they often injure or kill themselves.
This makes the attempt to release captive cheetahs very expensive as they need constant monitor and veterinary care. The reserves that take them may also need to make sacrifice on other big games as these cheetahs do not know how to co-exist with them.
Overall, it’s very unrealistic to expect captive-breeding cheetahs to work as a way to boost wild cheetah population and the practice has little conservation value. Rather than persisting in this impossible “solution”, it’s time for us to shift our focus back to the wild cheetahs.
Fortunately, certain conservation strategies have proven to be effective in working with cheetahs’ fragmented and diminished habitats. Programs like the Guarding Dog Programs and the managed metapopulation approach in Africa have made survival of wild cheetahs possible even when they have to compete with human’s insatiable demand for land.
The wild cheetahs in Africa are extremely fragile yet incredibly resistant. Having survived through the catastrophe of the last ice age and years of over-hunting, cheetahs still roam the African continents like they did thousands of years ago. They’re still fighting. And maybe this is the time for us to, in the right way, really fight for them.
Researched and written by Nikela Volunteer Sylvia Lin