Cheetah Conservation: Complications with Habitat and Health

Conservation is complicated, and when it comes to cheetahs the issue becomes even more complex.  From medical emergencies to lack of habitat, this iconic predator faces the threat of extinction on all sides.  Get ready to deep dive into the dilemma and come face to face with one fierce feline!

two cheetah brothers licking each other in the grass
"Cheetah brothers licking each other" by Tambako the Jaguar

Seven years ago I decided to spend my summer living my dream: writing, exploring a new country, and spending time with wildlife that I spent countless hours staring at through a screen and images in glossy magazines...  An environmental journalism and travel writing internship in South Africa!

While discovering incredible local coffee shops and honing my skills was expected, what came as a surprise was just how complicated conservation is in countries like this.  Tourism supplies a huge contribution to the efforts, but in many cases the reserves are struggling to find the balance between catering to this necessary industry and protecting the animals they fight so hard to save.  From elephant rides that place huge stress on the pachyderm's backbone to leashed walks with lions that cater to trophy hunting once the cuddly cat grows too big - everything seemed so tangled, and the spider web kept bringing in new questions and larger concerns.

On top of that, I was learning that while poaching was lethal and a constant threat to both the wildlife and those seeking to protect at risk animals, another complication was proving even more deadly to particular species.  Loss of habitat.

While this article was written over seven years ago, the truths within it remain critical, and so I wanted to share the story of Chester, Tenikwa Cat Park, and the plight of wild cheetahs.  And do share your thoughts in the comments or head over to social media to have a chat if you wish - I'm always up for talking about these issues! xx

Chester the cheetah in South Africa
Chester the cheetah in 2014

Tufts of burnt orange hair edge in and out of the green as a male cheetah glides through the brush, slinking about as only a cat can. Closer and closer he creeps, and as the ebony spots come into focus, so does the fearful awe that has been welling since stepping into the enclosure. There is a difference when you also are behind the bars.

Meet Chester, a seven-year-old cheetah who resides at Tenikwa Cat Park in Plettenberg Bay. Furry charcoal tears drip down from his wise eyes as he approaches to investigate the new additions to his pen. His gait is steady, his body language fierce and determined, and if the ranger did not inform visitors of his past, no one would ever guess that five years previously this majestic feline had been in danger of dying. For Chester hasdiabetes, a disease that has never before been diagnosed, let alone successfully treated in a cheetah. And despite his healthy appearance, the boy braves blood tests and insulin shots daily.

Left to fend for himself in the cold as a newborn cub, Chester had little chance at surviving alone, and by the time breeders intervened, his brother and sister had perished due to cold and weakened immune response. When Chester was rescued by Mandy Freeman, co-creator of Tenikwa, his journey was just beginning. As the first cheetah at Tenikwa, Chester easily won over the hearts of his keepers, so when at eighteen months old he suddenly stopped eating, the staff were struck with worry. After two weeks of startling behavior, his appetite was the least of Tenikwa's worries.

The young cheetah experienced severe pancreatitis, nausea, and nearly constant vomiting. Concerned about their feline friend, the staff brought the sick youngster to the vet, and Chester was prescribed strong antibiotics along with a strict no-fat diet. However, after further deterioration and his collapse, it became clear that the case was more serious than first realized. An x-ray showed a possible blockage in the cheetah's intestines and surgery became inevitable. Four vets assisted in the operation, and after assessing the situation, it was found that his pancreas was necrotic and his intestines full of abscesses. About sixty percent of the cheetah's pancreas was removed, and though the procedure saved his life, it also changed his world forever. Chester would no longer be able to generate his own insulin. While Chester's unstable health is not unheard of in cheetahs, his treatment and new found health is a step forward for the species in captivity.

Chester the cheetah in South Africa
Chester the cheetah, 2014

Take a moment and imagine landscapes teaming with life. Wild elephants spraying water from their wrinkled trunk onto their shining tusks, rhinoceros grazing with horns intact, and over 100,000 cheetahs roaming freely. One hundred years ago, this was a reality. Today, with world cheetah populations plummeting down between 6500 and 8000, this is a disappearing dream.

South Africa's cheetah population sits at a mere 1000 cheetahs [now just 600 in 2021], with 500 cats on game reserves another 500 trying to survive in the shrinking wild. Although 1000 does not seem excessively critical, the animal's biological structure does not lend itself to an easy or quick recovery. For a carnivorous creature that refuses to eat carcasses, any additional handicaps create dire consequences for the cat, and when added to a general loss of habitat, the cheetah faces steep challenges. Mandy voices her concern for the species, saying “if they survived, there is simply not enough wild space left.” She goes on to explain that the drop in population has hit cheetahs first because the feline has been unable to adapt their skill-specific hunting technique.

As the fastest land mammal, the cheetah is generally thought to be a prime predator, but this is not the case. Medium-sized compared to the larger and more powerful lions and leopards, the spotted feline is not made for fierce competition or crowded reserves. When hunting, cheetahs surprise their prey, and though they can sprint at bursts as fast as 110 kilometers per hour, the cat is not a long distance runner. The power of speed also comes at a price. After catching their food, the cheetah must rest for up to thirty minutes due to a spike in body temperature, and during this time hyenas, vultures, and other creatures tend to steal nearly one out of every ten hard-earned meals.

The cheetah's light bones are an extra handicap when competing, as the heavier and more muscular animals can easily crush or make mince meat of the more thin and elongated creature. The feline's teeth and paws hinder successful competition as well, with a broad nasal cavity taking up room in the skull, resulting in short fangs, and constantly bared claws that become dulled on the hard earth.

According to Mandy, the cheetah is “fighting the odds and losing.” She says, “once a population drops under 20,000, it puts severe pressure on the gene pool.” Cheetahs have gone way beyond that point, as numbers continue to plummet each year. The survival rate of cubs is resting at 20%, and at least half of those do not survive due to poor resistance caused by a small gene pool. Genetic variation typically acts as a safeguard, increasing the probability that individuals within a species will react differently to most threats that arise. With cheetahs, however, this variation is nearly unseen. Tests done on fifty five recently captive cats showed that their genetic makeup was virtually identical, possibly due to inbreeding after a population crash in the species 12,000 to 10,000 years ago.

Chester the cheetah in South Africa
Chester the cheetah, 2014

Chester is not the only speckled feline to suffer from diseases brought on by a lack of genetic diversity. Of Tenikwa's six cheetahs, three are afflicted. Zimbali, Chester's companion, has a black tail tip rather than a white one, which, if in the wild, could be detrimental to any cubs attempting to follow along in tall grasses. Thandi, the other female cheetah at the center, has an area on her shoulder that does not exhibit spots. The unusual hair growth formation would interfere with the natural camouflage provided in the wild. Other defects and mutations have been noted in the species, including the infamous King Cheetah, crooked tail, which impairs the traction of the front paws, or missing telltale teardrop spots, a feature that aids with hunting, seeing long distances, and keeping the sun out of the eyes.

While cheetahs do struggle to overcome debilitating features and shortcomings, they also prove to be fighters in a different sense. Chester is a prime example of the miraculous powers the species is capable of. “What was interesting is what happened during the recovery period after his operation,” Mandy says. “When the vets removed the stitches which spanned the whole length of Chester’s abdomen, they could not believe how quickly he had recovered and how well he looked.” Mandy believes part of this may be attributed to the cheetah's fitness level, specifically the daily enrichment walks that Chester had participated in since a cub. Wild cheetahs sleep seventeen hours a day and only run while hunting, whereas the felines in Tenikwa are routinely taken out as part of the Awareness Center's program.

Unfortunately, wild cheetahs afflicted have a low survival rate and are not likely to be treated due to rigorous medical procedures not able to be routinely conducted. Chester is one of the lucky cats, having the dual benefit of invested caretakers and a fairly domestic temperament. The cheetah's blood is taken three times a day in order to monitor his blood sugar levels, a feat made difficult by the cat's naturally tough skin and Chester's dislike of needles. He is also given artificial insulin twice daily, and kept on a strict lean meat, minimum fat, low sugar diet. The stringent scheduling ensured Chester was kept healthy, but the staff still had to watch their feline friend like a hawk for any sign of irregular behavior. To combat the stress and the unstable balance in Chester's levels, a long-lasting insulin was substituted for the high maintenance doses.

Chester's upkeep does not come cheap, with each month costing the center thousands. However, price is not a problem when caring for those you love. “Whilst Chester has a good quality of life, for how ever long that is, we will continue to provide for him,” Mandy says. “We understand that he was given a second chance, and every time his blood levels go out of kilter, we die a thousand deaths until he is stabilized.” The cherished cheetah gives back how he can, acting as an ambassador for wild cheetahs both in and out of Tenikwa. Onderstepoort professors involved in the veterinary supervision of Chester and medical doctors use the case for research and lectures, and visitors may learn important lessons from the wizened cat while accompanying him on a walk through the 46 hectare property.

wild cheetah sitting in grass
"Cheetah" by Mara 1

“Cheetahs are running out of time and space,” Mandy explains, and Chester helps make people aware of his species' plight. Within ten years, cheetahs will be extinct in ten African countries. “This will happen in our lifetime, and this is the heritage we are leaving for our children,” Mandy says. “What can we, as individuals do? Well, we probably can’t change the destiny for cheetahs, but we can certainly create a little wild space in our garden and understand that wild animals without wild spaces can’t exist.”

This is the goal of Tenikwa: to provide a safe space for struggling animals and establish an awareness of the problems creatures such as cheetahs are facing. The center will continue to grow, rehabilitating injured species and introducing the public to the other side of the fence. As for Chester, he will continue to fight short-toothed and dull-nailed against his plight and for an awareness of his species' dwindling populations.

No comments

Share your thoughts!
(No links please!)