A wild target won’t stop them turning six cheetahs into hundreds
SA’s wild cheetah population is 350, but at least 1,000 are needed for a genetically viable wild population
Six cheetahs roaming a remote game reserve in the Karoo could hold the key to the future of the species in the wild.
The 15,000-hectare Kuzuko reserve, with a five-star lodge at its heart, has unveiled an ambitious project to breed, wild and release cheetahs so the SA wild population of just 350 animals can grow.
It is working with the cheetah metapopulation project at the Endangered Wildlife Trust and cheetah conservation charity Ashia to breed animals that can be sold for nominal amounts to other reserves.
Kuzuko manager Gerhard Lange said a “rewilded” captive-bred cheetah, a five-year-old male that was making regular kills in the reserve’s 300ha fenced wilding section, was due to be released at another Eastern Cape reserve in the middle of the year.
Lange has rewilded two orphaned lioness cubs at Kuzuko, near Somerset East, and they are now raising cubs. But with cheetahs, he said he was attempting something that had not been tried before.
The adult male, three adult females and two adolescent siblings are roaming the wilding section and a 600ha area set aside for breeding.
“All adult cats made their first kill a mere six to 10 days after being released on to the wilding and breeding sections,” said Lange.
“They are doing exceptionally well, and their personality, behaviour and physical condition changed surprisingly fast. We are in uncharted waters and may experience setbacks, but we are convinced it is a very promising way to go forward in cheetah conservation.”
The breeding and wilding project was sparked by early success with Jasmin, a female born in captivity at Cheetah Experience Bloemfontein and released into Kuzuko’s wilding section in August 2018.
When she arrived, Jasmin behaved more like a house cat than a wild animal, purring as she pressed her body against Lange’s legs, and expecting to be fed by hand.
“In the space of days she made her first kill and has been successfully hunting ever since,” said Lange, pointing out that while the cheetah was still calm around humans, she no longer sought physical contact.
A statement from Kuzuko said Lange was using a similar “completely hands-off approach” with the cheetahs he adopted with the orphan lionesses. “He is unable to walk with the [lionesses], touch them or call them. The same approach will be used with the cheetah who are part of the new initiative,” it said.
In May 2016, Kuzuko’s wilding section was the temporary home for Sylvester, the runaway Karoo National Park lion that has now settled at the reserve. It then became home for the orphan lionesses, which have formed a pride and bred with Sylvester and his male counterpart, Fielies.
The reserve’s breeding section is free of predators such as lions and leopards, and allows Lange and his staff to closely monitor the animals.
“The innovative setup is designed to lower the major threats cheetah cubs face in the wild and considerably increase their survival rate, all the while being raised and ‘educated’ by their mother,” said the Kuzuko statement.
“The protective instinct of the mothers should also kick in, leading the cubs away from lions patrolling the fence, thus sensitising the cubs to bigger predators.”
Chantal Rischard, the German co-founder of Ashia – based in Paarl, Western Cape – said the charity partnered with Kuzuko because it provided “a perfect setup for captive-born and captive-raised cats to gain the necessary fitness and hunting skills for their future life in the wild. Extending the initial wilding and release concept with the breeding venture opens the door to a whole new level of conservation”.
During a visit to Kuzuko by Times Select, Lange said one of his objectives was to close down the commercial cheetah-breeding industry, which had driven up prices for the endangered animals and led to them being sold as pets for vast sums.
With the support of Ashia and Kuzuko owner Dr Kim Tan, it is proposed that male cheetahs from the reserve will be sold to approved buyers for R15,000 and females for R30,000.
Vincent van der Merwe, who co-ordinates the cheetah metapopulation project, said 1,000 animals were needed for SA to have a genetically viable wild population.
The current population of 351, in 54 small fenced reserves, were predominantly male, “so it is absolutely necessary to move individuals between reserves in order to maintain the genetic and demographic integrity of the metapopulation”.
The country also had about 600 cheetahs in almost 70 captive facilities, Van der Merwe told tourismtattler.com “Our aim is to reverse the ‘cheetah sink’ from captive populations to fenced metapopulations, and finally to free-roaming metapopulations. Currently, there is a demand for 32 females and 33 males, bringing the total to 65 cheetahs required for 25 new and existing reserves.
“We need new genetics, and the time has come for the captive cheetah community to play their part. The reality is that captive cheetah facilities have no conservation value unless they are contributing to the conservation of wild cheetah.”