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.
My mission statement, of sorts, is I am a professional student saving the planet one carnivore at a time and a scientific review published today in Science (Volume 343) does a pretty good job of explaining why. Carnivores are really cool but the importance of keeping these species’ populations healthy is more important than because they’re badass.
Most of the members of the order Carnivora are at the top of the food chain in their ecosystem making them an integral part of the health and well-being of that ecosystem. And, since carnivores exist in almost every habitat on Earth, declines in these species can be seriously detrimental to the condition of our plant. Carnivores play an important role in regulating ecosystem function. Other species, both flora and fauna, rely on carnivores hunting, scavenging, leaving prey remains, etc. whether directly or indirectly. A decline in carnivores has some fairly unexpected effects including changes in biodiversity, disease, and even stream morphology.
Natural ecosystem balance has ebb and flow, but in recent ecological history the ebb is beating out the flow in regards to many carnivore populations. Factors such as human-animal conflict, habitat loss and depletion of prey due to over hunting are changing our planet’s carnivore populations and declines are causing declines in other essential species and increases in destructive ones. This review focused on seven of the 31 large mammalian species of Carnivora (above) which have documented trophic cascades (meaning the predator is responsible for the alteration traits of their prey within a food web – ie the Circle of Life) reporting on the effects each carnivore has on its individual ecosystem. Their conclusions, humans cannot replace carnivores in their role of preserving ecosystem balance and conservation efforts need to be made to prevent further loss or even extinction of such important biodiversity and ecosystem function maintenance species.
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Cheetah Fun Fact
Cheetah's can't roar. Unlike their other big cat relatives, the cheetah doesn't have the ability to roar. In the noise-making department, the cheetah is more similar to its domesticated counterpart. So, one thing you will hear from a cheetah that you'll never hear from a lion.... purring! Other noises cheetahs make includes chirping, yelping, growling, hissing, snarling and bleating. Watch the videos below to hear for yourself!
Yesterday I helped host yet another Cheetah Conservation Fund event but this time in Texas! A few weeks ago I was asked to join the team planning the event, recruiting people to attend the VIP meet and greet for Dr. Laurie Marker's last stop on her Spring Tour in the USA. It took place at Redstone Golf Club in Houston with special guests Kito and Kiburi, six year old cheetah brothers from the Houston Zoo!
Laurie talked about me a few times during her talk, which made me feel very special. She even introduced me to the crowd as "one of her kids." It was a great event, perfect for shmoozing with people of like interests (including poop lovers). I met business owners, world travelers and fellow graduate students. Plus, I always like to hear Laurie speak about the cheetahs.
Chewbaaka will be in our hearts forever! (and contributing to science forever... Before he passed, Chewbaaka was chosen as the cheetah representative to have his genome fully sequenced for the Genome 10K Project. Go Chewy!)
Whether you're celebrating
Valentine's Day, Singles Awareness Day or Thursday
I hope it's filled with lots of love!
During a talk for the Genetics Graduate Student Association, a faculty member said when you are working on something that makes a profit, you never think about money, but when you’re working on something that doesn’t, money is all you think about.
Shifting gears from working in conservation as an undergrad and volunteer into entering graduate school and trying to make it into a career has made the difficulty of finding funding for conservation projects a prominent feature in my day to day life. I am currently in the process of trying to find a suitable lab for me to work in for my PhD. And for me, funding-wise, it’s a double wammy because I have been working on a previous project which currently doesn’t have its own funding. So, not only do I have to find a lab which is doing work I am interested in and has enough money to let me join but, because most labs don’t even have enough money to fund their own projects, let alone mine, if I want to do the CCF project while I’m here, I have to acquire my own funding for it. Now if this were the type of research the government and private organizations fund regularly, such as pharmaceuticals, cancer, etc., this wouldn’t be a huge issue. But because I am in the field of conservation, I keep hitting the “that project sounds very interesting/I would love to have you do a rotation in my lab but I don’t have any funding” roadblock. Now, here lies the real conundrum:
I agree with the motivation behind this statement. However, I don’t believe that there isn't a species that doesn't have a benefit. It may not be a direct benefit, but take any species out of an ecosystem and there’s going to be some kind of effect. Therefore, conservation of anything can be deemed beneficial when done so responsibly. But, back to the topic at hand, what do you need to be able to “restore and preserve as much habitat as possible”? Money. And, as much as I hate the fact that money is what makes the world go round, it would be irresponsible, and counterproductive, to ignore it.
One of the reasons I have so much respect for the Cheetah Conservation Fund is that they realized this conundrum and embraced it. They have many projects (i.e. Cheetah Country Beef and Bushblok) which have a benefit for both the ecology of Namibia and the economy of its people. What we as conservationist need to do is take a realistic approach linking immediate benefit for the people with long term benefit for the environment. Once we find that niche, finding funding becomes easier and we can build on our efforts of conservation, whatever it is we are trying to conserve.
The unusual coat variation of the king cheetah is so different from the spots found on your typical cheetah that it almost looks like a completely different species of cat. Thought to once be a subspecies of cheetah, this rarity has been found to be the results of a single mutation in the DNA sequence of a peptidase enzyme called Taqpep.
This, along with the discovery of two other mutations, has helped researchers to uncover not only what causes the spot pattern of the cheetah but stipes in house cats and other patterns found in felines around the world!
Laurie Marker and Anne Schmidt-Küntzel of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, whom I have a close relationship with, contributed to this research. I hope to someday soon get the opportunity to work with many of the other individuals who contributed to this research. The world of feline genetics is growing and I hope to be a big part of that!
All photos and information from this post are from Wired Science about findings announced today in Science.
The “cheetah vs. leopard print” debacle has stuck again! I went to Michael’s today just to pick up a few supplies to finish a current art project I am working on and, as always, I decided to browse a little; possibly spark some inspiration. In the framing department they had a display of adorable mini-frames, a few of which were on clearance. I was joyed to see that the metallic leopard print frames were on sale for $1.99 (50% off their regular price) so I grabbed 6 and made my way to the register. I thought they would be cute to use for one of CCF SoCal’s many upcoming events! Now, at the register they rang up as “cheetah” (which was not on clearance). I explained to the cashier that this frame WAS leopard print and that there were NO frames with cheetah print but there were zebra and tiger. When she called for assistance, I told them if they could tell me which of the three frames they were trying to pull off as being leopard, when, in fact, the ones I brought up WERE leopard, I would purchase them because I just wanted African themed. But, alas, they could not and they would not honor the clearance price despite their mistake. The prices posted labeled the three frames as Cheetah, Leopard and Zebra. 1 out of 3 is an "F" Michael’s. Someone doesn’t know their animals and by not knowing your animals, you’re FALSE ADVERTISING!
At this moment I would like to give a shout out to Michael Kors. Not only is he an amazing designer who I LOVE but this man holds a special place in my heart because he knows his animal print!
I am a biologist and my life is crap!