Cubs put cheetahs on the fast track to a wilder future
It’s not their cuteness or even the fact that they increase SA’s wild cheetah population by 1% that makes these newborn cubs important. It’s their genes.
“Around 90% of all wild cheetahs in SA are descended from only three females,” said Vincent van der Merwe, head of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s project to bolster the species’ presence in SA.
The arrival four weeks ago of three cubs – two females and a male – at Kuzuko reserve in the Eastern Cape was a small but significant step towards expanding the Acinonyx jubatus gene pool.
“At the moment, I can’t move a cheetah onto a reserve without relatedness issues,” said Van der Merwe. “They are nearly always cousins or half-cousins of the cheetah already there.
“We were faced with the really horrible situation of having to introduce captive genes into the wild population.”
This is why the new arrivals at Kuzuko – the first cubs to emerge from the reserve’s new cheetah breeding programme – are so important.
Once they are around 18 months old, and have become “lion savvy” while roaming the reserve’s 15,000ha, Van der Merwe will take them – and their vital genes – to other reserves, where they will roam wild and hopefully breed.
First they’ll have to avoid the predators – lions, leopards and hyenas – that leave Van der Merwe admitting “we’re expecting a lot of mortality”.
But he has high hopes for the Kuzuko cubs. “The Karoo generally produces quite a tough animal,” he said.
The three cubs have been named Storm, Summer and Rain, in honour of their arrival in the early hours of March 15 during a late-summer downpour.
Their mother is a captive-born cat which is part of the first phase of a cheetah breeding, wilding and release project initiated between the five-star Kuzuko Lodge at the heart of the reserve and a non-profit organisation, Ashia Cheetah Conservation.
The cubs were born in Kuzuko’s 600ha breeding section, which is free of predators and allows reserve manager Gerhard de Lange to monitor pregnant females and offspring.
The mother was already pregnant when she arrived at Kuzuko from Ashia’s cheetah sanctuary in the Western Cape town of Paarl and was released into a holding boma then into the breeding section, where she was soon successfully hunting.
Chantal Rischard from Ashia said the first litter of cubs to be born in the breeding section was a major milestone.
“The eventual introduction of these cubs, once they reach maturity, into the cheetah metapopulation project will complete the cycle that we originally intended – for captive-bred cheetahs and their offspring to make a significant contribution to the conservation plight of this endangered species,” she said.
De Lange said the mother and cubs were doing phenomenally well. “It has been an amazing experience to witness how remarkably well these cats are adjusting to their new home in the wild.”
One of the objectives of the metapopulation project, said Van der Merwe, was to destroy the captive breeding industry and build up the gene pool of the wild population in SA’s 56 cheetah reserves.
This population has sunk to only about 380 animals, far short of the 1,000 needed to sustain a healthy gene pool.
“At the moment we have only 30 to 40 females breeding and only a very small population that are genetically compatible,” he said. “And only the fittest of the fit really contribute.”
That was why the Karoo-raised cubs were particularly important. The sparse vegetation, poor hunting, large distances and rocky landscape all contributed to the animals’ hardiness.
For the 18-month start in life at Kuzuko, the cubs will be closely monitored.
“Then we’ll throw them into the deep end on other metapopulation reserves with high densities of lion, leopard and hyena,” said Van der Merwe.
The survivors will not only be key to repopulating SA with the fastest land animal.
Reserves in Rwanda, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo are in the queue for cheetahs that emerge from Van der Merwe’s project.