World’s fastest cat still running for its life

A recent article by a renowned field biologist in a mainstream, glossy magazine about travel in Africa began with the words: “Everyone knows the story about the cheetahs’ genetic predicament.”

Well, not everyone.

Cheetah tree, used for marking territory. All photos ©Alex Strachan

Cheetah tree, used for marking territory. All photos ©Alex Strachan

In fact it’s more likely that ordinary, everyday people — people who know the cheetah is the world’s fastest land animal, and who know this sleek, fast cat is running a race for survival — have no idea about the cheetahs’ genetic bottleneck.

International Cheetah Day, Sunday. Dec. 4, is as good a time as any to take stock of exactly where the cheetah is in its race against time. 

It’s also a good day to acknowledge the good works being done by conservation groups such as Dr. Laurie Marker’s Cheetah Conserrvation Fund, better known by its acronym CCF, a 45-minute drive northeast of the cattle town of Otjiwarongo, Namibia.

Dr. Laurie Marker, founder and director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), Namibia.

Dr. Laurie Marker, founder and director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), Namibia.

Marker, originally from Oregon, earned her doctorate in zoology from Oxford University in a thesis based largely on cheetah genetics.

Marker’s subsequent studies of genetics and her founding of CCF in Namibia, coupled with her position as the bookkeeper for genetics of all cheetahs in captivity, makes her uniquely qualified to be both a conservationist and a field biologist.

All that biographical detail may sound a bit dry — and it is — but it opens a window onto what’s really interesting about cheetah survival. It’s the part that virtually anyone with even a vague interest in wildlife conservation will be curious to know.

In 1977 Marker was involved in one of the first known attempted relocations of a captive-bred cheetah into the wild in Africa. What the team accomplished then, in the relatively obscure, little-known country of Namibia on Africa’s southwest coast, would provide the template for countless conservation efforts to come.

Marker settled in Namibia because the dry, arid, relatively sparsely populated country is — oddly enough — home to the largest known population of wild-surviving cheetahs. Marker discovered that cheetahs, unlike other predators, have been conditioned to survive in areas where there is relatively little water. That, and a penchant for fast running, are one of the few reasons the cheetah has survived as long as it has.

That was then, this is now. Today, Namibia’s cheetahs live in uneasy proximity to human settlement. Cheetahs don’t fare well where there are large populations of lions and hyenas, which rules out many of Africa’s ever-shrinking national parks and nature reserves. Lions and hyenas will kill cheetah cubs, and even adult cheetahs, whenever they can, as evolution has conditioned the larger, stronger cats to view their faster, smaller, more nimble cousins as competition for food.

Much of Namibia’s semi-arid land has been set aside for cattle ranches, which are larger in size than those in North America, because the ground is so dry more acreage is needed to sustain even a relatively small herd of cattle.

That means nearly all the cattle ranchland in Namibia is shared with wild gazelles, wart hogs, bush hares and the like — cheetahs’ favored food.

Inevitably, when small antelopes are hard to find, cheetahs will try their luck with the occasional goat or stray calf. Inevitably, that brings into inevitable conflict with ranchers and communal farmers.

CCF has established a dog-breeding program for Anatolian shepherd dogs, which serve as guard dogs for sheep and cattle herds. Anatolians were originally bred in Turkey to ward off wolves; Marker discovered that cheetahs, because of their fragile bone structure — designed for speed while running — and nervous disposition, will always back down when confronted by an apparently dangerous animal, like an Anatolian shepherd. CCF’s breeding program has been a success on a micro-level — the conservation agency provides adult dogs to farmers gratis, thanks largely to donations from overseas supporters.

It’s worth noting on International Cheetah Day that CCF is about more than just cheetahs — lessons learned and applied on the ground in Namibia are showing the way for environmental agencies across the world, in all countries, for nearly all endangered species where human-animal conflict is a factor.

Studies in the national parks in East Africa — Maasai Mara and Serengeti jump to the fore — show that cheetahs have large litters compared with other big cats, even lions, because the infant mortality rate is so high. A cheetah may often have five or six cubs, but only one or two will survive to reach maturity. Evolution, again. It’s not only about survival of the fittest; it’s about adapting to the environment and life situation.

As for that genetic bottleneck: Researchers believe that, around 10,000 years ago, cheetahs, one of the first-known cats to evolve, were reduced to a handful of individuals. It’s believed that a tiny, pocket population of cheetahs bred over time, to the extent that 10,000 cheetahs remain today. (That sounds like a large number. It isn’t, if you consider there are believed to be 400,000 elephants remaining in the wild today, despite a poaching epidemic and habitat loss.)

Genetically speaking, virtually every cheetah alive today is more closely related than scientists would like. Dr. Luke Hunter, a wildlife biologist, president of the New York-based conservation group Panthera and considered one of the world’s leading authorities on big cat behaviour, has said cheetahs are as inbred as lab mice.

Even so, they have outlasted many other animals in the race against extinction. With a little luck, and a little more human awareness, they will survive a few more generations yet.