The mission of the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) in its simplest form is to secure the long-term survival of the cheetah, the world’s fastest land animal. Like in most large carnivore species, the worldwide cheetah population is on a steep decline and time is quickly running out to reverse this trend and prevent global extinction. The solution to this problem is incredibly complex and multifaceted and therefore CCF employs a wide variety of programmes and initiatives to mitigate all the threats driving the cheetah to extinction.
One of the primary threats facing the cheetah is conflict with farmers. If livestock, especially small hoof stock like goats and sheep, are not managed properly they are vulnerable to predators like the cheetah. Many farmers will indiscriminately kill cheetahs to prevent the chance of losing any of their stock to depredation. Often times, female cheetahs with cubs are killed leaving the cubs alone and defenceless. When cheetah cubs are orphaned at a young age before they would have naturally left their mother, they are incapable of caring for themselves and in most cases would not survive. In such instances, captivity is the only available option to ensure their survival.
CCF conducts rescue and rehabilitation for these orphaned cheetahs. In most cases, the cubs spend the remainder of their life in captivity as they have not had enough learning experience with their mother in the wild or have injuries or disabilities that prevent them from ever living on their own in the wild again. However, in some cases certain individuals who have lived with their mothers in the wild for several months and who display enough natural wild behaviour are candidates for release back into the wild after a period of captive rehabilitation. CCF carefully selects these individuals and if necessary will put them through a period of “release training” in a release training camp. When a particular cheetah or group of cheetahs is determined to be suitable for release and when a release site is located, the cheetahs are moved to the site and released back into the wild. Normally, the release is a “soft release” which is when the cheetah is placed for a short period (~1 month) in a small enclosure within the release site to acclimate the animal to the new area and reduce the chance of the animal returning to the area it was moved from. After this period, the gates to the enclosure are opened and the cheetah is free to leave when it chooses. At this point, CCF researchers closely monitor the cheetah to ensure their well-being and to provide assistance when necessary until the time when the animal becomes entirely self-sufficient.
In December 2013 three female cheetahs, Jacomina, Emma, and Minja, were released on CCF land. From the beginning, the three did very well in the wild and it was soon decided to translocate Jacomina to Erindi Private Game Reserve in what is known as a reinforcement translocation. By moving Jacomina to this new area, the health of the local cheetah population is improved and gene flow is encouraged. After Jacomina’s release and during her successful rehabilitation process, she was bred by a wild male and after moving to her holding camp at Erindi, she gave birth to two healthy cubs. As Jacomina was new to the wild herself, it was decided to keep her within a smaller area until the cubs were older so that they would have a higher chance of survival.
After careful monitoring over the past month, using camera traps to see the development of the two cubs, their release date was planned. Early this week, Dr. Laurie Marker (CCF’s Director), CCF’s veterinarian Mari-Ann Da Silva, Ryan Sucaet (Assistant Cheetah Keeper), Eli Walker (Research Technician), and Finn (CCF Scat Dog) travelled to Erindi Private Game Reserve to release Jacomina and her cubs into the reserve. A French film crew travelled to Erindi Private Game Reserve with us to document the release. Between CCF staff and the film crew, cameras were placed and the gates were opened allowing Jacomina and the cubs to leave when ready. After leaving their compound, we took Finn, one of CCF’s scat dogs, inside the area to search for scat from the cubs so that CCF geneticists can determine the sex of the cubs as well as the identity of their father. Finn found many samples inside the enclosure so we soon hope to learn the identity of their father by comparing with scat collections around the CCF study area.
That afternoon, once most of the team returned to CCF, Ryan and Eli managed to locate and get a visual on Jacomina and her cubs, as well as provide them with a supplementary meal. The next morning though, while tracking Jacomina, the team spotted two lions headed straight for Jacomina’s position just 100 metres away. The team were then joined by an Erindi ranger so that they could go on foot to find Jacomina and her cubs. To everyone’s relief, Jacomina and her two cubs were found alive and well despite the lions being so close. Although Jacomina had never seen lions before, her instincts kicked in and she managed to protect her cubs from this first serious threat. Now that Jacomina has access to the entire reserve, she will have to deal with threats that she’s never faced before and it will be a constant battle to ensure her cubs survive to adulthood. CCF will continue to monitor Jacomina and her cubs for as long as it takes to be confident she and her cubs have a high chance of surviving in the wild.
Releasing captive raised orphan cheetahs back into the wild comes with many risks. The benefits outweigh the risks when CCF can provide a cheetah with a life in the wild – the life it is meant to have. We go to great lengths and costs to ensure they are successful. By releasing orphans back into the wild after rehabilitation, CCF mitigates the negative impact of human-wildlife conflict on the cheetah population and is one step closer to reaching our goal.
CCF is non-profit organisation and all of our funding comes from private donors and support. Without this support, rehabilitation and release of cheetahs like this would not be possible. Please consider supporting CCF and help save this magnificent animal from extinction and make a donation to support us in our mission.