By Dr Louise de Waal
At least 600 cheetahs are kept in captivity in South African tourism facilities, offering interactions and cub petting in the name of conservation and education. Do these facilities truly promote the survival of free-ranging cheetahs or is this just an easy revenue stream?
One or two of the roughly 80 captive cheetah facilities make genuine efforts to conserve the wild cheetah population by attempting reintroduction programmes. Others support breeding programmes of Anatolian shepherd dogs, that are used to address human-wildlife conflict with predators like cheetah and leopard.
Cheetah Outreach in Somerset West fits in the latter category and has been supporting Anatolian shepherd dog projects for many years. As such, they have gained respect within the tourism industry. It was therefore even more shocking to find not only 12 adult cheetahs, but also two five-month-old cheetah cubs, and several serval, caracal, black-backed jackal, bat-eared foxes and meerkats at their facility on a recent visit.
Most of these ambassador species are available for petting and of course for the compulsory photo opportunity. Some of the adult cheetahs can even be hired for special off-site functions, such as corporate events, fashion shoots, and even weddings. Cheetah Outreach is certainly not alone in such a wide hands-on animal interaction offering.
The little-known reality is that only a few of Cheetah Outreach’s animals are actually rescued, most are bred in captivity and hand-reared specifically to become ambassador species.
According to the facility, these ambassador animals perform an important “educational” role by raising awareness of the plight of the wild cheetah and to raise funds for Anatolian shepherd dog breeding projects. However, does the end justify the means?
The cheetah cubs in their petting enclosure are not rescued orphans, as is often believed. They are bred on demand at a breeding facility in South Africa, removed from their mothers prematurely, and bottle fed to habituate them for cub petting.
When cubs are available at the centre, daily interaction of up to six hours a day is on offer at a cost of R250 (€16) per person. This can generate an estimated R45 000 (€2 900) of revenue per day in peak season. Simultaneously, adult cheetahs on leashes also earn their keep, providing further income through selfie opportunities.
The conservation value of any of these habituated cheetahs is highly questionable. Dr Paul Funston, Senior Director of Panthera’s Lion and Cheetah Programmes, says: “Captive breeding of cheetahs is not conservation, never has been and never will be." In the current South African context, captive breeding without successful reintroduction is preservation at best, but never conservation.
In the wider captive cheetah industry, as with lions, cubs outgrow the petting enclosure when they are about nine months old. At this point they are either promoted to become fully fledged ambassadors and stay at the facility, returned to the breeding farm for further breeding, exported under CITES Appendix II for ‘zoological’ reasons, or are sold as pets to the Middle East.
There is an additional, rarely mentioned issue, namely the potential danger of interacting with adult predators. In a recent analysis by the Endangered Wildlife Trust, it was found that 38% of all known incidents involving carnivores were attacks by captive cheetahs. This was the second highest attack rate after captive lions.
The global move away from captive breeding and hands-on wildlife interactions is gaining traction in South Africa with tourism organisations, such as South African Tourism and Satsa, taking a firm stance against such practices.
Against this background and the widely-accepted position that animals are sentient beings, can we condone the use of ambassador species for human entertainment and to raise funds for a legitimate cause?
Annie Beckhelling, Founder of Cheetah Outreach, says a Masters study carried out at the facility found “there was no altered behaviour during encounters, purring increased and there was a tendency to reduce heart rate with increasing people contact”. They therefore conclude that human interactions are beneficial for the animals.
Besides all this, there are some vital questions that need to be answered to hold all captive wildlife facilities accountable (unfortunately Cheetah Outreach never responded to these questions).
- How can we justify a self-perpetuating captive breeding industry that breeds cheetahs on demand and takes them away from their mothers prematurely, with no attempts to reintroduce them into the wild? This practice guarantees a steady supply of cubs for the petting industry, but at what cost and where is the conservation value?
- Is there a genuine need to physically interact with cubs and adult cheetahs to achieve the much-needed awareness of the conservation plight of the species?
- Could we be equally (or more) successful in educating the public, if we allow the ambassadors to behave more naturally at a distance, while well-informed guides provide the necessary information? It is even questionable whether people absorb information about the ecology and conservation of wild cheetahs during the excitement of having a selfie taken with an adult or baby cheetah.
- Are we not essentially confusing education with entertainment?
Should we not be more honest in describing the role of such animals and admit they are pure photo props for monetary gain, even if the money is earmarked for the conservation of the species?
It is time for captive wildlife facilities offering hands-on cheetah interactions to go back to basics and rethink the means by which funds are raised for conservation projects, allow these ambassadors to live an as natural as possible life in captivity, and stop supporting the many breeding farms in South Africa.