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 Endangered.
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.
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.
Captive breeding issues
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 depression.
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 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.
Potential for canned hunting
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 (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”.
“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?”, Park continues.
Why has 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.
Many captive wildlife facilities claim that cubs (and adult cheetahs for that matter) fulfil an educational role. However, the Endangered 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.
“In 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.