Rehabilitation research returns orphaned cheetahs to the wild

Rehabilitation research returns orphaned cheetahs to the wild

The cheetah is the world’s fastest land animal, but it’s running out of space. Its range has been reduced dramatically over the past decades, and populations continue to decline. Identifying solutions to conserve and protect the species in the wild is thus vital. A new study published in the journal Oryx by the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) charts the results of a cheetah orphan release project that operated between 2002 and 2018 in Namibia.

Rescued orphans were put through a rigorous rehabilitation program. “Our findings demonstrate the ability of wild-born, captive-raised cheetah to transition back into the wild with strategic pre- and post-release management directed towards optimizing survival,” the study notes. The results of the project are framed as a methodological framework on cheetah rehabilitation and post-release management for others to use and adapt as part of a strategy to reverse the decline of the species, Acinonyx jubatus.

From 2001 to 2012, the project took in 86 young cheetahs orphaned due to human-wildlife conflict. Careful selection of ideal candidates for eventual release was a key part of the process, said CCF executive director Laurie Marker, and 36 of the orphans went through a release process between 2004 and 2018. Cheetahs over the age of six months had spent more time in the wild with their mothers, learning survival skills. Younger individuals, between the ages of three to five months, were formed into artificial coalitions with older cheetahs: “[T]hey grow up together, and if you bring them in at a young age, they will bond and become like family,” Marker said. Coalitions tended to survive longer in the wild compared to individuals, according to the study.

During their time as captive animals and in the run-up to their release, the selected cheetahs were kept in top mental and physical condition through daily exercise. “And so, once they go out, it’s not like they have to build up their muscles,” Marker told Mongabay.

When the time came, two types were tested with individuals over the age of two and a half years old: hard and soft releases. The former entailed a release without a breaking-in period. Those in the soft release group were kept in a boma, a caged environment, for between one and five months to allow time to acclimatize to their new environment and reduce their tendency to return to the release site, known as “homing.” During training releases, eight of the cheetahs didn’t become independent, failing to make kills or showing little interest in hunting. They were returned to captivity, while another was killed by a leopard. In total, 27 of the released cheetahs became independent in the wild.

Lead Image: A cheetah cub. Thirty-six rescued cheetah orphans went on to be selected for release during the CCF’s rehabilitation project. Image courtesy of the Cheetah Conservation Fund.

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