WINSTON, Ore. – Frankie, an adult male cheetah, lets out a high-pitched bark and paces back and forth in his roomy enclosure. He’s calling out to the female in the enclosure next door.
But his breeders say, unlike most animals, if you put the two together, chances are nothing will happen.
“The females can be extremely selective about which male they breed with, the males themselves can be selective with what females they want,” said Bo Larson, a cheetah breeder at Wildlife Safari in Winston. “I would definitely rate them as one of the toughest animals to successfully breed in captivity, and in the wild.”
For thousands of years, through multiple ancient civilizations, we have tried and failed to breed cheetahs. But Wildlife Safari, the most renowned cheetah breeding program in the northern hemisphere, has done it 174 times.
And that’s no small feat.
For one, breeders say the finicky nature of females and unpredictable cycles are a hassle. But, just as importantly, the animals are deeply genetically flawed.
“Brothers and sisters in any species are said to share about 80% of their genetics,” said Larson. “The majority of cheetahs who might not even be brother and sister share upwards of 95% of their genetics.”
In other words, the 10,000 or so cheetahs that exist today in the world are near identical clones. And that’s due to a phenomenon called a genetic bottleneck.
After being nearly wiped out during the last ice-age, only small populations of cheetahs remained. Those left inbred, eventually resulting in poor immune systems and high rates of birth defect. Infant mortality rates of cubs are estimated at around 90% in the wild.
But, by figuring out how to breed the animals and then breeding for genetic variability, Wildlife Safari has managed to get mortality rates down to 45-50%.
That captive population, one of the healthiest in captivity in the world, will hopefully get reintroduced into the wild someday.
“Those litters would continue to breed and disperse, and that would bring brand new genetics into a population that has never seen it before,” said Larson.
But that’s the next big puzzle to solve — nobody has successfully reintroduced a cheetah into the wild. Larson says it’s hard to teach an animal to hunt at 70 miles an hour.
But wildlife safari is involved in efforts in Africa that are using moving lures to try and teach the hunting techniques Larson says may eventually be enough to help them.
“There’s two females over there right now that have gone over 60 miles an hour so we’re getting very, very close,” said Larson.
Larson says that accomplishment, whether months from now or years from now, may eventually be enough to end the otherwise very real idea of cheetah extinction.
“They are a very valuable, charismatic, and beautiful creature that is worth trying to save,” said Larson.
Wildlife Safari isn’t the only organization working to save the cheetah. There are a number of partners around the world working together with the Cheetah Conservation Fund.
If you’d like to learn more, you can view the fund at www.cheetah.org.