Opinion post: Written by Louise de Waal, Sunday Tribune & Conservation Action Trust
A 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 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 similarities to that 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 endangered.
South Africa has the third largest wild cheetah population worldwide with an estimated free roaming and managed metapopulation of between 1 200 and 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 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, said: “Captive breeding of cheetahs is not conservation, never has been and never will be.”
The reintroduction of cheetahs to the wild is a long and expensive process with very low success rates. It is suggested that after a number years in captivity, a species may lose its unique biological and behavioural characteristics, making the conservation efforts of captive breeding far less worthy.
Cheetahs in captivity are extremely sensitive to stress and often display abnormal behaviour 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 and an unnatural diet that may even cause depression. The wild cheetah population suffers from low genetic diversity, that easily leads to inbreeding in captivity.
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.
There 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 condemned practice. The Threatened or Protected Species Regulations do not allow canned hunting of large predators with the exception of lions.
Linda Park, director of the Campaign against Canned Hunting, said: “The 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?
“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 ‘ambassador cheetahs’. The majority are bred in captivity and hand-reared to be groomed as well-behaved ambassadors. Even more disturbing is the emerging trend of cheetah cub petting, where cubs are bred on demand and hand-reared to fulfil the cuteness factor in captive wildlife facilities.
These cubs are used as photo props often for as long as six hours a day. Many captive wildlife facilities claim cubs and adults fulfil an educational role. However, the Endangered Wildlife Trust said such facilities at best offer “edutainment 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 ambassadors, are sold to zoos worldwide or traded to the Middle East as pets.
South Africa is the largest exporter of live cheetahs. However, the excessive captive breeding is not the answer to the plight of cheetahs in the wild.
“In the majority of cases captive breeding of cheetahs and other large carnivores, is purely for financial gain,”said Funston.
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