Rest in peace my dear girl!
An article published last week by the Conversation UK presented the idea of using captive breeding to help the Asiatic (or Iranian) Cheetah in its fight against extinction. Captive breeding for bringing endangered species “back from the brink” isn’t a new concept. In fact, it has been done multiple times through San Diego Zoo Global alone, bringing back species which were once extinct in the wild. Previously, I have talked about the Scimitar Oryx. Also, in 1982 the last remaining 22 California Condors were brought to the Wild Animal Park (now the San Diego Zoo Safari Park) to start a captive breeding program which has been a smashing success, growing the total population to 435 birds, 237 of which are flying wild.
The Asiatic cheetah has a small and shrinking population with only 50-70 animals remaining within 15 reserves in Iran. Could captive breeding be the answer? When a species’ population count is this incredibly small this type of a program seems both reasonable and manageable. And, with successes like the Scimitar Oryx and California Condor, it even sounds achievable. But, are captive breeding programs a reasonable option for large carnivores?
Captive breeding programs like this are tricky and there is no guarantee for success. When the intention is releasing them back into the wild to live on their own, the animal has to be cared for in a completely different manner than their captive-living counterparts. They can’t be too habituated to humans and, when it comes to carnivores, they need to have the strength, agility, stamina and cunning to hunt for themselves. Both would be difficult to accomplish in a captive setting, especially without a wild mama-hunter to teach them the ways of the world. Not to mention the amount of space it would require. Unlike the Scimitar Oryx, an Asiatic cheetah program couldn’t take place at a zoo. It would need to be implemented within their natural habitat with enough room to emulate wild living while still being able to carefully manage breeding. It could be possible to have the entire population as the captive population (as what we population geneticists call the founding population) meaning the entire gene pool of the species would need to be managed. Care would have to be taken to prevent accidental selection for tameness while preserving the genetic variation of the species (Frankham et al 1986).
There have been captive cheetahs who have been successfully released into the wild. In 2006, the Cheetah Conservation Fund released a female cheetah, Shiraz, and her cubs, Sheya, Linyanti, Omukumo and Nehale, after “training” in a fenced game farm. While mama had been captive for many years, she was wild-born herself and was able to successfully teach her captive-born cubs how to hunt. This could have been the key element that contributed to the cub’s success after being released at Erindi Private Game Reserve in Namibia. A seemingly common issue which has been seen with the release of captive cheetahs, whether they were wild- or captive-born, is they have a higher propensity to become a “problem animal” hunting livestock instead of wild game. Proper “training” and placement of release could reduce this risk. As they say in dog training, “set them up for success.”
Something like this will also cost a bloody fortune, especially if it’s to be managed properly. With the Asiatic cheetah population so small, I believe a carefully managed captive breeding program could be possible as long as someone can find the funding, space and personnel needed to pull the operation off in the Middle East.
A study published in Conservation Biology this month has shown that incentive/community-based conservation efforts are effective in reducing the killing of large carnivores, specifically the lion. Projects such as Cheetah Country Beef by the Cheetah Conservation Fund and the sale of handicrafts by the Snow Leopard Trust have proven that the creation of a direct economic benefit for local individuals has a greater impact in improving predator tolerance than relying on a conceptual knowledge that there may be an overall economic benefit to the community through larger entities such as eco-tourism and trophy hunting. This study investigated 2 different approaches to improving the tolerance of lions with the local people of Maasailand in southern Kenya. They compared a purely incentive-based approach with an approach which integrates community values discovering that while each approach reduced lion killing individually, both approaches working in unison may be the way to go.
The first approach is based on a practice which has already had some success in the North America (with wolves, bears, coyotes, etc.), predator compensation. The goal of predator compensation is to deter vengeful killing by compensating local farmers for livestock losses caused by predators. A private organization called the Predator Compensation Fund was set up in southern Kenya to manage the program and the study found that over the 8 years of data collected, predator compensation resulted in an 87-91% decrease in killing.
The second program uses community cultural values and belief systems by employing traditional warriors, called imurran, to act as Lion Guardians. Imurran warriors are highly respected members of the Masaai community, responsible for defending its people and livestock. The guardians are offered $100/month to discourage locals from killing predators through education and community assistance. Additional deterrents include guardians losing their earnings if lions disappear so the strong Maasai ties to community and it being frowned upon to cause problems for respected community members has nearly wiped out lion killing completely, with the data showing a 99% decrease with the Lion Guardians program.
These percentages were calculated using some pretty sophisticated mathematical models and statistics (for those of you who understand that kind of stuff, they used a jackknifed generalized linear model with pairwise comparisons of the likelihood ratio statistic). Both programs have some downfalls – predator compensation hasn’t been shown to have long-term sustainability when privately funded and can cause livestock management to fall in anticipation for loss, and Lion Guardians doesn’t take into consideration the costs of livestock losses at all – but the benefits of each can counter the costs of the other. A combination of incentive-based approaches would be the most ideal method for improving predator tolerance but, of the two approaches, the one with implications on community values was the more successful and more likely of the two to be successful if run on its own.
•Hazzah, L. et al. 2014. Efficacy of two lion conservation programs in Maasailand, Kenya. Conservation Biology