Cape Town - An
extremely worrying trend is emerging in South Africa, where cheetahs are bred
on demand, taken away from their mothers to be hand-reared for cub petting, to
become well-behaved ambassador species, or to be exported for either
“zoological” reasons or into the pet trade.
With the number of cheetahs in captivity soaring to more than 600 kept in
about 80 different facilities, concerns have been raised that this industry
is showing alarming similarities of the lion breeding industry, with its links
to canned hunting and legal lion bone trade.
Since 1975, half of the world’s wild cheetah
population has been lost and the species is now confined to just 9% of its
historical distributional range. The IUCN status for cheetah is Vulnerable,
although the scientific community is calling for a reclassification to
SEE: iSimangaliso Wetland Park monitors cheetah population with tracking collars
South Africa has the third
largest wild cheetah population worldwide with an estimated free
roaming and managed metapopulation of between 1 200 - 1 700 animals. These animals live either in national
parks and other protected areas or on commercial farmland, where most of the
human-wildlife conflict occurs.
The captive breeding generally happens
under the guise of cheetah conservation. The message conveyed is one of reintroduction
back into the wild or preservation of genetic material.
However, the true value of captive
breeding is still very much in dispute. Dr Paul Funston (Senior Director of Panthera’s Lion and Cheetah Programmes)
categorically states, “Captive breeding of cheetahs is not conservation, never
has been and never will be!"
Here are some of the reasons why.
The reintroduction of cheetah into the wild
is a long and expensive process with very low success
rates, as was again shown in a reintroduction
attempt of captive bred cheetahs in Makulu Makete Wildlife Reserve, Limpopo.
It is even suggested that after a number
years in captivity, a species may even loose its unique biological and behavioural characteristics;
therefore, making the conservation efforts of captive breeding far less worthy.
Cheetahs in captivity are
extremely sensitive to stress and often display abnormal behaviour, such
as pacing back and forth out of frustration, because their hunting and ranging instincts are denied.
The high prevalence of disease in captive populations is now
thought to be caused by chronic stress suffered by cheetah in captive
conditions, as well as an unnatural diet. The lack of high-energy fat in their diet may even cause
SEE: WATCH: Cheetah races Formula E car as the world celebrates International Cheetah Day
The wild cheetah population suffers from low genetic diversity, because they only just survived the megafauna
extinction during the Pleistocene. As a consequence, the wild population has
low sperm counts, increased susceptibility to disease, and skeletal abnormalities.
This low genetic diversity of the wild population easily leads to inbreeding in
Captive breeding can even pose a potential
threat to the survival of the wild population, as wild cheetahs are captured for their purer genes, to
prevent inbreeding issues.
for canned hunting
is a real potential for canned
hunting of captive bred cheetahs and the already large and growing
captive population could easily provide a supply for this internationally
or Protected Species Regulations (TOPS) currently do not allow canned
hunting of large predators with the exception
of lions. However, Linda Park (Director of Campaign against Canned Hunting) says
“whilst the term canned hunting is generally thought to refer to lions, we know
from information received that all the big cats are at risk”.
situation with cheetahs is extremely concerning as their numbers in captivity
have increased steadily. While they do not breed as prolifically as lions,
one has to ask where do all the cubs go to?”, Park continues.
South Africa such a large captive bred cheetah population?
When we examine the legal trading of cheetahs between breeding farms and tourism
facilities, we start to understand this growing trend of prolific captive
breeding in South Africa.
South Africa has a significant number of
so-called ambassador cheetahs. The vast majority is bred in
captivity and hand-reared specifically to be groomed as well-behaved
ambassadors and not rescued from the wild and unable to be returned
back, as is often believed.
Even more disturbing is the emerging trend
of cheetah cub petting, where cubs are bred on demand, taken away from
their mother and hand-reared, specifically to fulfil
the cuteness factor in captive wildlife facilities. These cubs are
used as photo props often for as long as 6 hours a day.
SEE: WATCH: Another alarming cheetah attack in SA highlights urgency to stop wildlife petting
Many captive wildlife facilities claim that
cubs (and adult cheetahs for that matter) fulfil an educational role. However,
Wildlife Trust states that “the educational value of these facilities is
questionable... at best they offer ‘edutainement’ with no real measurable change
in behaviour that promotes conservation”.
Once the cubs outgrow the petting facility,
they are often returned to the breeding farm to be used for further breeding, become
full-blown ambassadors, are sold to zoos worldwide, or traded to the Middle
East, where many are kept as pets as a status symbol.
South Africa is already the largest
exporter of live cheetahs. However, the excessive captive breeding is not the
answer to the plight of cheetahs in the wild.
the vast majority of cases captive breeding of cheetahs, and other large
carnivores, is purely for financial gain. It gains pseudo credibility, and
possibly therefore government sanction, being claimed to be for conservation,
when that is all a rather distasteful lie and financial gain is what its really
for. It’s not conservation and should not be claimed as such”, says Dr Funston.
(Supplied by Conservation Action Trust)