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Kenya Wildlife Service statement on rescue of cheetah cubs

Date Published: 15 May, 2012
Kenya Wildlife Service statement on rescue of cheetah cubs

The orphaned Cheetah cubs that were rescued from the Mara Conservancy to the Nairobi Animal Orphanage.

The Kenya Wildlife Service decision to move three orphaned cheetah cubs from the Mara Conservancy to the Nairobi Animal Orphanage has been guided by the Kenyan law, the national conservation and management strategy for cheetahs and the specific circumstances under which the rescued cubs were being reared. The KWS scientists considered all the available options on the rescued cubs and decided that their relocation to an animal welfare facility dedicated to the care of sick, injured or orphaned wildlife in Nairobi was in their best interests.

The Mara ecosystem records cheetah survival rates that vary year to year due to attacks by lions, leopards and hyenas. These attacks result in death of mothers that attempt to protect cubs and individuals are orphaned and injured. This state of affairs has attracted enormous attention with questions being raised about how the injured and orphaned individuals can be handled.

One suggestion that is made is to raise orphaned cheetahs in captivity, train them how to hunt and then release them to wild to at least give them a chance to live in their natural habitats rather than confine them to live in cages in an orphanage.  This would be the ideal thing to do.

However, attempts to release captive reared cheetahs to the wild have been unsuccessful. Captive reared cheetahs do not have the opportunity to learn from their mothers hunting and survival skills in the wild. Despite the availability of food species, water and shelter in an area, what cheetah cubs learn from their mothers is critical for their survival. Hand raising cheetah cubs in confined areas does not equip them with the skills needed to survive in a highly competitive wild setting. Cheetahs learn hunting skills over long periods of time and this is not possible in a captive situation.

Cheetah cubs raised in this manner also get accustomed to humans and being fed to such an extent that when released to the wild as sub-adults return to their captive sites to be fed – that is they develop homing instincts – and end up being dependent on the captive site for food.

In other instances due to their close association and familiarity with humans during their early stages of growth, such cheetahs visit human settlements in the vicinity of their release sites causing fear and apprehension, and may take small stock, which results in the cheetahs being killed in retaliation.

All documented releases of captive raised cheetahs to the wild have demonstrated failures. Wild to wild releases have been seen to be more successful but these too are fraught with difficulties as the cheetahs have to establish territories in a new area, compete with other cheetahs and other carnivores. They end up being killed in such competition or being pushed to the periphery of the natural areas where they get into conflict with people and the result is eventual death of the cheetahs. 

It is also quite evident that there are serious welfare concerns associated with releasing captive raised cheetahs to the wild. Releasing such cheetahs to the wild is immensely stressful for the cheetahs as these releases almost invariably fail, usually through the death of the released animals. There is absolutely no justification for subjecting any animal to what amounts to intentional cruelty.

In general, release of captive reared carnivores to the wild has been unsuccessful. Some of the successful carnivore reintroduction projects have been of wild to wild such as in Southern Africa where they have a policy of using only wild caught wild dogs for reintroduction. The Yellowstone National Park in USA is another success story where wolves were released back to the wild – this too was a wild to wild release. In some other cases in Southern Africa, wild dogs are raised in captivity and then released in ring fenced areas where there are no competitors such as lions, hyenas and leopards.

Kenya’s experience with this was the release of captive raised lions to the Aberdare Ranges in the 1970’s. These lions never completely adjusted to the wild. They formed the habitat of hanging around camp sites, especially when visitors were present and following vehicles along the roads; this caused a lot of apprehension.

Another example is of a hyena that was hand raised on Mbirikani ranch. The hyena wandered further and further away from where it was raised until it was wild living but kept coming back to be fed. It developed a homing instinct.

There is a difference between releasing a captive raised animal to the wild and it actually surviving to breed and contribute to a wild population. Due to the shortcomings associated with release of captive raised cheetahs to the wild, KWS does not consider the supplementation of wild living cheetahs with captive raised cheetahs as a priority project for the survival of the species. Emphasis is on the conservation of the wild populations.

It was against this background that KWS declined the request for rearing in captivity and release to the wild of the three cheetah cubs as was requested by Mara Conservancy.

It can be argued that the enclosures at the Nairobi Animal Orphanage are unnatural and predispose the cheetahs to a life time in captivity. Considering the consequences of releasing captive raised cheetahs to the wild, providing professional care to the cheetahs at the orphanage is the only other way of assuring their survival.

The animal orphanage is dedicated to the care of orphaned individuals. We would like to assure Kenyans and the world at large that the three cubs will be nurtured and given the best care possible. The movement of the cubs to the orphanage was in the best interests of the cubs.

As science continues to experiment the release of captive raised cheetahs and indeed other carnivores to the wild, it is our expectation that a protocol for successful releases will be developed to aid decision making in cases similar to the Mara Conservancy cubs.

Kenya supports globally important populations of cheetahs. Such populations are in the Tsavo, Mara-Serengeti and Laikipia-Samburu ecosystems. These cheetahs face challenges that are principally related to their habitat. Loss and fragmentation of habitat together represent the greatest threat to cheetah populations, which contributes to several of the other proximate threats. This is the number one threat to all cheetah sub-populations in Kenya. Because they range widely, they require large areas of land and are correspondingly more sensitive to habitat loss.

Taking habitat loss and other threats to cheetahs into consideration, KWS championed a consultative process of developing a national conservation and management strategy for cheetahs which is now in the third year of implementation. The implementation of the strategy aims to i) promote coexistence of cheetahs with people and domestic animals; (ii) provide relevant stakeholders and managers with scientific and timely information on the status of and threats to cheetah populations; (iii) strengthen human, financial and information resources for conserving cheetahs; (iv) ensure that appropriate legislation is in place to allow cheetah conservation at the national and international level; and (v) mainstream cheetah conservation in land use planning and its implementation.


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