OK, let’s start by getting the joke out of the way: cheetahs never prosper.

Sadly, that’s very close to the truth. 12,000 years ago, when there was a mass extinction event that took out 75% of the large mammals on the planet, cheetahs barely survived. Their decimated numbers resulted in a “genetic bottleneck” event in which there wasn’t enough genetic diversity remaining in populations within breeding range to prevent inbreeding. While the number of cheetahs recovered in the following centuries, the genetic bottleneck left the species with increased homogeneity, a susceptibility to disease, and weakened adaptability to changing conditions.

In 1900, there were about 100,000 cheetahs in the world. By 1975, the number had reduced to about 30,000. Today, the best estimate is around 10,000. Like many threatened wild animals, the main culprit is habitat reduction by encroaching human populations. They are also hunted by poachers for the pet trade and for traditional medicine, and by farmers who believe they threaten their livestock.

Some of them live in wildlife preserves, but that’s not a good solution for them. Cheetahs are very different from other large mammals such as lions, leopards and hyenas. Cheetahs are built for one thing: speed. They can run over 65 miles per hour — and reach that speed in 3 seconds! But they are not fighters.  They predate by chasing down prey, quite literally tripping them so they fall down, and then latching onto their throat and choking them to death. But they have no defenses against other more muscular predators, other than running away. They often are chased away from their hard-won meals by lions and hyenas. Worse, cheetah cubs are frequently killed by these other large mammals before they are grown (and fast) enough to escape them. Recent research shows that cheetahs manage to survive in habitats with lions, but they are hardly thriving and the lions actively keep the cheetah population down.

Why is this important? Because the African wildlife preserves are home to these other large mammals, making them poor places for cheetahs to recover their population. That drives them into other areas where human-cheetah conflicts are more common, and the results are disastrous.

That’s how we got here. Fortunately, there are organizations such as the Cheetah Conservation Fund, run by the wonderful Dr. Laurie Marker, working to help cheetahs recover their numbers. The CCF uses a number of tactics. They have a world-class research facility in Namibia where they conduct research, education, breeding programs and provide medical rehabilitation for injured cheetahs. The CCF understands that successful conservation programs today need to be a “win” for the local economy as well, so they are investing in agricultural education and experimentation programs. Moreover, they created a program to train dogs to protect livestock by chasing away cheetahs and other large predators — thus resolving the conflict between farmers and cheetahs.  It’s a complex, multi-pronged program that is starting to make a difference.

Next week the Woodland Park Zoo will be opening a new cheetah exhibit. It will be a temporary home for two 14-year-old female cheetahs who were transferred from Wildlife Safari in Oregon. As part of the Species Survival Plan for cheetahs in AZA-accredited facilities in North America, providing them a temporary home creates space at Wildlife Safari for them to breed some of their other cheetahs and further increase the genetic diversity within the captive population of cheetahs.

So let’s talk about the really scary part. With the wild cheetah population down to 10,000 now, the species may have already gone through a second genetic bottleneck, further reducing their diversity and their ability to survive in the wild. Between that and the rapidly dwindling numbers, it may be too late for cheetahs in the wild — their epitaph may already be written.  This makes the role of captive breeding of cheetahs triply important: first, to aid in educating the public about the critical nature of their situation; second, to maintain a captive population for future generations to experience; and third, to provide a (remote) hope that someday we might be able to re-introduce them into the wild if they do in fact go extinct. That is a last-resort measure, and there is great hope that it will never be necessary, but it’s the kind of thing that needs decades of thoughtful preparation to accomplish. If we wait until cheetahs are extinct in the wild, it will be too late.

If you live in the Seattle area, I hope you come out to the zoo starting next week and check out the cheetahs for yourself.


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