Once widespread across the African plains and into Asia, cheetah populations have plummeted, following decades of habitat loss and competition with rival carnivores, such as lions, leopards, and hyenas, and also persecution by farmers.
Today, only 12,000 to 15,000 cheetahs remain in Africa, and a few may survive in Iran. The country with the largest population is Namibia, home to about 3,000 cheetahs.
Cheetah populations in zoos also are not self-sustaining due to inconsistent reproduction and a high rate of disease susceptibility. The overall aim of zoos' cheetah conservation efforts is to better understand the cats' biology so we can improve their reproduction rates and the health of populations living in zoos. To achieve the goal, we are conducting basic and applied research into male and female biology, and studying individuals and populations in zoos and in Namibia.
Cheetahs are one of the most popular animals in zoos, serving as ambassadors for their wild counterparts. They are, however, a challenging species to manage in zoos because:
Nuances of cheetah health and behavior remain undocumented and continually present challenges to zoo population managers. Breeding problems observed in zoo cheetahs may be largely due to historically poor husbandry and management styles rather than genetic problems.
The National Zoo has made great strides in improving the husbandry of cheetahs. Animal-care staff at the Zoo have combined their understanding of cheetah behavior and reproductive physiology. The results of this combination of disciplines will enable keepers to celebrate cheetah reproductive successes, as they did when two litters were born at the Zoo, one in 2004 and another in 2005. Zoo scientists continually collect behavior and hormone data on cheetah populations to test the effect of different management schemes on cheetah reproductive performance.
We will continue to generate knowledge through new scientific investigations including:
The overall benefits include vastly expanded knowledge of cheetah biology, improved ability to maintain a reproductively viable, healthy self-sustaining North American cheetah population and training the next generation of Namibian biologists. All knowledge gained will be applied to the wild population.
The world's cheetah population in zoos is carefully monitored through an international studbook, a database of information about a species in zoos, including the gender, parentage, date of birth, and location of each individual. The North American population is managed by the Species Survival Plan (SSP).
The SSP carefully investigates the genetics of each animal in the population and, working with a team of highly skilled managers, veterinarians, and scientists, makes breeding and transfer recommendations for all cheetahs in North American zoos. A research council within the SSP implements multi-disciplinary research projects designed to investigate cheetah nutrition, disease, reproduction, behavior, and physiology. Annual meetings of the SSP committee and research council members assess the progress made in different areas and the implications of new findings for zoo and wild populations.
With the Cheetah Conservation Station at its Washington, D.C., campus and a new cheetah research and breeding facility at its Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Virginia, the National Zoo is positioned to advance from its current role as a participant to a leadership role in the cheetah SSP breeding program.
The Zoo's scientists, animal-care staff, and veterinarians will have an unprecedented two breeding facilities in close proximity to each other, with the capacity to house more than 30 cheetahs. Our staff will be able to focus completely on furthering their knowledge of the reproductive biology, medical needs, behavior, and nutritional requirements of this species.
A generous private donation enabled us to build the new facility, but support is needed for our conservation science and training activities. To achieve our research and management goals, the Zoo is seeking support from visitors, members, and the public, as well as a matching gift from the business community.
Cheetahs are well studied in their natural habitat; however, studying cheetah biology in the wild remains difficult. Nuances of cheetah health and behavior remain undocumented and continually present challenges to managers. Investigations of cheetah physiology are conducted in a full and active collaboration with the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), based in Namibia.
This nongovernmental research and education organization is devoted to conserving the wild cheetah and is recognized worldwide as a leader in cheetah conservation. The CCF works closely with Namibian veterinarians and government organizations to rehabilitate and house orphaned cheetahs. These animals are then studied to help answer research questions related to cheetah biology and become part of education programs to pass information on to the public.