Location: Africa
Project Managers: Steve Bircher
Species: Cheetah, lion, African painted dog
Priority: High

Background

The world's fastest land animal, the sleek and long-legged cheetah is losing its race for survival. Historically, cheetahs ranged widely throughout Africa and Asia, dating back to the Great Ice Age. Today, fewer than 8,000 cheetahs inhabit a broad section of Africa, including areas of North Africa, the Sahel, and the eastern and southern parts of the continent. Over the past 50 years, cheetahs have become extinct in at least 13 countries. Their two remaining strongholds are in Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa, as well as Namibia and Botswana in southern Africa. Although the species faces different problems throughout its various geographic range, loss of habitat, ranchers killing animals, poaching and competition with large predators are killing off the remaining cheetahs. Furthermore, cheetahs are difficult big cats to breed in captivity. The global cheetah population's lack of genetic diversity makes it more susceptible to ecological and environmental changes and disease threats.

St. Louis Interest

Since 1974, the Saint Louis Zoo has been a leader in cheetah research and captive breeding. Unlike other big cats, the cheetah has very different breeding and behavioral practices. What began as an interest in discovering what makes these animals so selective in mating has now become an international cooperative effort to link captive breeding programs with research and protection in cheetah range countries.

The Zoo's cheetah breeding program has already successfully produced over 60 captive-bred offspring, but more research and a stronger link between in situ (in its natural habitat) and ex situ (outside its natural habitat) efforts are needed to create similar successes for threatened cheetahs in the wild.

Because of this, the Zoo has expanded its conservation efforts to include other large carnivores, for example, the lion and African painted dog, which have an impact on cheetah survival and play a critical role in maintaining a balanced environment.

Goal

Our goals are to educate the public and other stakeholders on matters relating to the cheetahs, lions and African painted dogs. We also seek to support sound scientific research and to develop programs in east and southern Africa so that the future of these carnivores will be one of survival, not extinction.

Conservation Science

The Center's priorities are developing effective large carnivore census techniques, efforts to reduce livestock conflict, conservation of carnivores outside protected areas, managing veterinary and health issues, and education programs relating to carnivore conservation in Africa.

The Center has expanded its census and monitoring efforts to include all 35 carnivore species in Tanzania. In addition, the Center is teaming up with researchers and project managers in Botswana and Namibia to promote the conservation of cheetahs and other carnivores through research, awareness and community participation in these range countries.

The Center will continue to support the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Cat Specialist Group, Ruaha Carnivore Project, and the Range Wide Conservation Program for Cheetah and Wild Dogs, through its participation in future research efforts and workshops. Strategies include educating people living near carnivores about their basic ecology, importance as species in the ecosystem, and livestock and game management.

In addition, the Center will continue to participate in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Cheetah, Lion, and African Painted Dog Species Survival Plans (SSP). The SSP is a program designed to manage genetically healthy populations of these species in North America. This genetic reserve of carnivores may provide insurance for wild populations in the future. In addition to its breeding efforts, the Zoo has a long history of carnivore research projects. One such project, a cheetah mate choice study, was designed to test whether female cheetahs can determine relatedness of males by investigating the male's urine scents to ultimately select the best genetic partner. The results of this study may provide cheetah managers with another tool to enhance captive reproduction.

Partners

IUCN/CBSG Cat Specialist Group
Ruaha Carnivore Project
University of Oxford, UK
Tanzania Carnivore Center
Zoological Society of London
Cheetah Conservation Botswana
Cheetah Conservation Fund, Namibia 
Wildlife Conservation Society