UN study points to difficulties in breeding cheetahs in captivity

Cheetahs are “notoriously difficult to breed in captivity”, a new study by the global wildlife regulator affiliated to the United Nations has found based on long time research on cheetah breeding in captive facilities in Africa, the world’s largest wild home of the fastest land animal on the planet.

The study commissioned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora (CITES) will be discussed by countries at the next standing committee meeting of CITES in Geneva from July 7 to 11, a notice of the meeting said.

The comprehensive study conducted by the cat specialist group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) with two other organisations comes at the time when India has decided to import 8-10 cheetahs from South Africa and Namibia for breeding in captivity in Madhya Pradesh’s Kuno Palpur National Park.

The first batch of cheetahs from the two countries are expected to reach Kuno by end of August. As of now, cheetah experts, two from South Africa and one from Namibia, are studying the changes made in the Kuno habitat for cheetah relocation and breeding.

“Cheetahs are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity – for example, North American cheetahs have excellent genetic variation as well as housing and veterinary care, yet only 23 out of 111 females have had offspring,” the study circulated to 180 signatory countries of CITES said.

Dubious methods

Although some South African facilities such as the De Wildt (now Ayn van Dyk) Cheetah Centre, one of the two registered with CITES, have been successful in producing more than 600 cubs in the past 30 years, cheetah experts suspect that some facilities in South Africa may not have mastered the challenge and are “illegally trading, nationally and internationally”, in live captured wild animals, the study also said.

The study suspected that the cubs are being smuggled from northern Africa, where they are available on private land, to these breeding centres to show success. “At present, it is unclear whether South African authorities can certify with confidence that all animals that are exported as specimens bred in captivity meet all the Convention’s bred-in-captivity conditions,” the study said.

In wake of the claims and studies that cubs are being smuggled, the South Africa’s CITES Management Authority recently announced it would exercise increased national oversight of the provincial captive cheetah registration system, with the aim of ensuring uniform implementation of protected species regulations, the study said.

South Africa is the world’s largest exporter of live cheetahs. Export of cheetahs from two breeding centres in South Africa are allowed for “commercial” purpose, although most of the export is reported for non-commercial zoo purpose. India is also getting cheetah from one of these centres.

Commenting on the study, Faiyaz Khudsar, a wildlife researcher who worked for many years in Kuno, said that looking at the ecology of Kuno and associated prey base, captive breeding of cheetahs may not be easy.

“In absence of certification for confident captive breeding, direction of the introduction programme for cheetah raises many pertinent questions,” he said. Translocation of cheetahs would be from one captive centre to another and there are many questions over whether they can ever be released into the wild, he added.

Female cheetahs are solitary and roam vast distances, whereas males defend smaller territories and mate when female pass through, creating breeding issues, according to studies. The breeding rate among cheetahs is lower than other big cats, such as tigers and lions, the studies have pointed out.

In addition, the cheetah’s genes pose a challenge to their continued survival, with low rate of reproductive success, research has found. With fewer offspring, cheetah populations can neither grow nor adapt to changes in the environment, especially habitat change.

“Cheetahs have experienced genetic bottlenecks in the past, resulting in low levels of genetic diversity in all populations. Historically, cheetahs have faced difficulty in breeding in captivity and their reproduction rate is low,” said Ravi Chellam, CEO, Metastring Foundation, and coordinator, Biodiversity Collaborative.

Even the national action plan for cheetah translocation released in January 2022 hinted at the animal’s low reproduction issues. The plan says the Kuno has current capacity to sustain 21 cheetahs in 15 years and 36 after 30-40 years.

Cheetahs to remain in captivity

“During the initial years of cheetah introduction (5- 6 years) or population below 18-20 adult cheetahs, it may be prudent not to allow cheetahs to disperse into sink habitats of the landscape,” the plan says.

India is getting six cheetahs from South Africa’s Cheetah Conservation Fund, a non-government organization, and about four from Namibia in the first tranche. It has signed a memorandum of understanding with the two countries on import of cheetahs for a period of 10 years, which the officials said can be extended by another five years.

Vincent Van Der Merwe and Adrian from South Africa and Laurie Marker from Namibia reviewed the preparations in Kuno for translocation of 8-12 cheetahs. When contacted, Merwe refused to speak, saying he has signed a non-disclosure agreement with the government. “I can speak only when non-disclosure period gets over,” he said.

The experts told Madhya Pradesh forest officials to divide the 5 sq km enclosure into nine equal parts to keep the males and females separate for planned breeding, officials said.

“Once they adapt to the new habitat, two to three male cheetahs will be released into enclosure of female cheetahs,” a forest official said on basis of interaction with African experts.

“The team liked the arrangement. They have asked to complete fencing and bifurcation within the next fortnight. We have prepared a special water bowl which will fill automatically so the experts loved the concept and asked to make it in each part of the captivity,” Kuno divisional forest officer PK Verma. “They are happy with the prey base too.”

“With experts from South Africa and Namibia, WII (Wildlife Institute of India) experts were also present during the visit,” the state’s chief wildlife warden JS Chauhan said. “All the suggestions and comments will be compiled as a report and will be sent to the government of India for further action.”

More than 117 years after the project to rehabilitate lions from Africa failed, the government has readied an enclosure for cheetahs in the dry deciduous forest landscape of Kuno Palpur. In 1905, 10 lions were brought from Africa. Of them, seven reached, who were killed by local villagers. Kuno had lost all its lions by 1872 and cheetahs by early 1920s.

In 2010, India embarked upon a new journey for reintroduction of the cheetah into the wild. The plan was to bring cheetahs from Africa and release them in wild to repopulate the cheetah population in the country. Kuno was selected as the habitat where the cheetahs could be relocated.

However, the project got stuck as some wildlife activists moved the Supreme Court against the project, saying it was not feasible. The top court struck down the proposal, agreeing with the critics that the survival of the cheetah in a changed ecological demography was difficult.

However, in 2018, the Madhya Pradesh government revived the project, asking the court to consider the project afresh. The court agreed and, in 2020, appointed an expert committee headed by retired Indian Administrative Service officer, M K Ranjit Sinh, to examine the wildlife areas suitable for the cheetah.

The committee in January 2021 selected Kuno National Park as first destination for the cheetah translocation project. The apex court gave its go-ahead.

(With inputs from Shruti Tomar in Bhopal)

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