I recently had the incredible opportunity to film at Cheetah Outreach, the leading Cheetah conservation and education program in South Africa. As a scientist and conservationist, it is critical in this day and age to highlight organisations that exploit animals and compromise their welfare in the name of ecotourism. The animal welfare storm surrounding travel giant Thomas Cook is an example of just how important it is to know exactly what particular animal tourism facilities are about and what you are supporting when traveling. While it is vital to avoid facilities that fall short of industry standards, it is also crucial to highlight deserving programs which secure healthy animal tourism and educate the public of the plight of endangered species.
Many people who seek out wildlife tourism do so because they love animals and want to contribute in positive ways. “you itinerary has the potential to support conservation and promote good wildlife management” says National Geographic’s wildlife trade investigators reporter Rachael Bale. Cheetah Outreach is a shining example of how encounters with animals can help to secure the long-term conservation of species at crisis point.
Cheetah outreach is one facility that tops the ethical scale and has the true wellbeing and conservation of these majestic cats at the core of its foundation and philosophy. The Cheetah Outreach project is ‘genuine’ ecotourism personified. We can all do our bit and there has never been a more important time to get involved to help stop the needless eradication of animals from our planet.
The Cheetah is the fastest land animal on the planet, but it is losing its most important race - the race for survival. Cheetah numbers have been devastated over recent years. At the turn of the century there were an estimated 100,000 Cheetah throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, but today only 7,100 of these beautiful animals survive worldwide. The Cheetah has been driven out of over 91% of its historic range. Their population is now confined to six African countries: Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa. This species is almost entirely extinct in Asia with 50 individuals living in a small isolated pocket in Iran. South Africa is home to 500 free-ranging cheetahs on farmland and approximately 700 in national and privately owned game reserves. It took 4 million years of evolution to produce this incredible predator and only 100 to place it on the edge of extinction.
Against the odds
The odds are considerably stacked against the poor cheetah in its fight for survival. 1 in 10 Cheetah cubs won’t even make it through the first year due to predation, starvation or disease.
The one thing that Cheetahs do have going for them, is that they are one of the best hunters. Being the fastest land predator on the planet means they will kill up to 50% of the prey they go after, compared to the 20% success rate of a pride of lions. Cheetahs are non-aggressive creatures that would rather run than fight, but their low predator hierarchy leaves them vulnerable to larger predators. So even if they are successful hunters, they are easily chased off their kill by lions and hyenas. If a litter of Cheetah cubs are found by these other top predators, they will be completely wiped out for fear of future competition. So the Cheetah as it tough, but in addition to all this hardship the species must endure, the Cheetah has an even greater threat – man. As farmers encroach in their ever-shrinking habitat, Cheetahs are being shot on a daily basis and this deadly conflict could mean the end of this beautiful animal if we don’t act fast.
The Ethical Argument
Cheetah outreach is successfully tackling the conservation of this majestic cat through various initiatives, but the organisation has come under fire from activist groups that frown upon the fact that these large predators are kept in captivity and allowed to interact with the public on a daily basis. Cheetah Outreach meets these claims head-on and acknowledges that the ethical argument is a very complex one indeed. However, through this incredibly powerful interaction, people develop strong emotional bonds with these animals that forces changes in behaviour and personal actions that will lead to the long-term conservation of the Cheetah. This up-close and personal experience provides an intense education about this magnificent creature and is specifically designed to acutely raise awareness of the plight of the South African Cheetah and what can be done to conserve the species in the wild.
Many people who visit the centre don’t even know what a cheetah looks like yet alone aware that its very survival is hanging in the balance. Unfortunately, there are a lot of animal tourism programs that abuse animals for financial gain, producing a warped view of the animal tourism industry, but this facility has the ability to pass on a very powerful message from the heart of the battle. Such an incredibly moving encounter has the power to change core life choices and even if only a small percentage of visitors then go on to take action that benefits the long-term conservation of the Cheetah, it more than outweighs any bad press and cements the vital role it plays in keeping the Cheetah from the brink of extinction.
The fact that you can get so close to these big cats is nothing short of magical. Cheetah Outreach doesn’t take in wild animals. It would be completely unfair to do so as wild Cheetah would instinctively have a natural fear of humans, causing them unnecessary stress and anxiety. This is a very public facility with a focus on public awareness and education with relaxed, habituated ambassadors of the species all born in captivity who want to be around and enjoy humans.
I must also reiterate at this point that these Cheetahs are in no way sedated. In fact, any form of sedation apart from being totally unethical is also life-threatening to Cheetahs and is in no way linked to Thailand’s cruel ‘Tiger-selfie’ industry.
Instead, these cats at Cheetah Outreach are extremely confident and habituated to humans from an early age. It is very natural for an adult Cheetah to sleep 16-18 hours per day, so by visitors engaging with them while they’re doing this are not interrupting or compromising any natural behaviors. They do not see humans as a threat, but they are never forced to do anything they don’t want to do. Everything at Cheetah Outreach is done on the Cheetahs’ terms. If they want to walk around and play, then visitors are not allowed to interact with them and the 5 freedoms of animal welfare are adhered to at all times.
The Five Freedoms of animal welfare
Freedom from hunger or thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour
Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area
Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
Freedom to express (most) normal behaviour by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal's own kind
Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering
The bigger picture
The work at Cheetah Outreach reflects what is happening in the wild and directly benefits wild populations of Cheetah. As proprietor of the facility, Dawn Glover so eloquently put it “A lot of people worldwide and locally can’t even tell the difference between a leopard and a cheetah, and have no idea what is happing to our wildlife out there". The main here is education and conservation; teaching people about these animals, what threatens their survival and that humans are the Cheetahs biggest enemy in terms of habitat fragmentation and conflict." The goal at Cheetah Outreach is to get people involved, educated and making better life choices for long-term conservation that will benefit all South Africa's wildlife.
Engagement with these beautiful also attracts a lot of sponsors to help the wild Cheetah and supports the centre's Turkish Anatolian Shepherd guard dog program. Farmers lose up to 40% of their livestock due to predation on an annual basis, and as a result they are taking the law into their own hands and killing these incredible animals to protect their livelihood and food security. Turkish Anatolian Shepherds are an effective non-lethal solution to the human/Cheetah conflict as they literally bond with the livestock they guard. Puppies are raised with the herd from 6-8 weeks of age and will aggressively confront any intruders or threats to the herd including leopards, lions, cheetah, hyena, jackal, and caracals. Dawn proudly states that, "a total of 284 dogs have been placed on farmland since 2005, resulting in a 92% total reduction in livestock lost to predation. A lot of farmers come through the centre and learn about the success of the dog program. By protecting farms and their livestock we protect the Cheetah and in turn all the other wildlife and biodiversity in these areas. It’s about looking at the bigger picture and not attacking this facility at face value".
Ethical wildlife tourism can benefit conservation. It is an integral part of the future conservation of the Cheetah and their habitat. Therefore it is incredibly important that huge travel companies like Thomas Cook recognize the important part they play in positive and ethical animal tourism. Its boss Peter Fankhuser said "Our animal welfare policy is really making a difference. We don’t need to hide away from any pressure groups. Customers expect a big brand like Thomas Cook to make a stand”. The impact of wildlife tourism in South Africa has the ability to transform a local economy, help sustain a natural habitat and provide vital long-term benefits for the conservation of a species. To find this balance we must blur the lines between local, visitor and conservationist.
Why keep them in captivity and not relocate to the wild?
The relocation of captive cheetahs back into the wild does not work. Cheetahs in captivity are not instinctive hunters as this is a taught behaviour handed down from mother to cub. In the wild, she will teach them what to hunt, how to hunt and where to hunt. She will also teach them not to engage with other large predators, which is something a captive Cheetah wouldn’t know, therefore releasing it back into the wild would be a death sentence.
Only once we can protect and sustain habitat for Cheetahs could we even attempt to release captive-born cheetahs into the wild, but it certainly won’t be captive born hand-raised Cheetahs like the ones at the Outreach centre. It’s a very complicated procedure to get these cats ready for release in the wild, and captive-born cheetahs just don’t have skills to survive out there.
There are also a number of very important long-term benefits of breeding in captivity. The main reason is genetics. Cheetah has incredibly low genetic diversity and so by providing a sustainable breeding program and outbreeding as much as possible, genetic diversity can be maintained and in turn create a genetic ark. This will be essential if researchers are able to devise a successful long-term strategy of reintroducing captive Cheetah genes back into wild populations. It would ultimately a wild female to breed with a captive male but give birth to her cubs back in the wild where she can teach them the life skills they will need to survive in their natural habitat.
Breeding in captivity also means that if we do lose the entire wild population of Cheetah, there is at least the option to try to re-introduce the species.
Black Market trade
Captive breeding programs also help to decrease the removal of Cheetahs from the wild populations. It is estimated that 60 cheetahs are lost from the wild population to the black market and when you think about the fact that there are only 500 left on South African farmland, this is a substantial percentage. In South Africa, there is now legislation in place so that any movement of cheetahs outside of its borders has to be accompanied by a passport linked to a DNA profile to prove they are captive born, second-generation animals. This is the only legal way to import/export between countries tightening-up the illegal trade in cheetahs and many other species of South African wildlife.
Get involved – The Volunteer Program
It’s not all doom and gloom for the Cheetah as there are armies of wonderful volunteers heading off on planes worldwide to do their bit for conservation and wildlife. One of the essential features of this blog is to highlight ethical conservation organizations that have volunteer schemes. I know there are a lot of people out there who want to do their bit constructively, and so if you want to work with animals or simply visit an ethical ecotourism facility that is actively working to help conserve endangered species in the wild then this is the place for you.
Cheetah Outreach offers a local and international volunteer scheme. Individuals must pay for their own flights and insurance, but accommodation and basic food is provided. Volunteers will work 5 days a week and receive intensive training on how to work with these incredible cats and engage with the public. Volunteers are very much the front of the house for the education of the public about the cheetah and what happening in the wild, and how to protect them. The volunteers facilitate the interaction between the public and the Cheetahs to make the encounter safe for the public and the Cheetah. Duties vary from day to day and include feeding the animals, cleaning enclosures, health checks, getting very dirty at times.
If you have passion to work with animals with a ‘hands-on’ approach and for a great and ethical cause, then apply via Facebook, or directly through the website Cheetah.co.za