Turn­ing the wild chee­tah into cash

Bred in cap­tiv­ity, they are trans­formed into ‘am­bas­sadors’, advert props and pets Anal­y­sis

Afro Voice (National Edition) - - COMMENT - This ar­ti­cle was first pub­lished on the Con­ser­va­tion Ac­tion Trust

A WOR­RY­ING trend is emerg­ing in South Africa where chee­tahs are bred on de­mand, taken away from their moth­ers to be han­drea­red 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 le­galised 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 In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture 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 of 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 hand­reared 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,” Fun­ston said.

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