What have yourself and your research team achieved since CCF was established in 1990?
My research focuses on the biology, ecology and conservation strategies of the Namibian cheetah. I’ve collected and analysed biological samples for nearly 1,000 Namibian cheetahs. I have also tagged and released more than 650 cheetahs back into the wild and placed UVF satellite radio-tracking collars on more than 60 during a 15-year study, which continues today. Going back in time to 1982, I’ve been working in conjunction with researchers from the Smithsonian Institution and the National Cancer Institute on the genetic research of cheetah, which resulted in identifying their lack of genetic diversity, reproductive abnormalities and disease susceptibility, and eventually in 2015, the mapping of the cheetah genome. At CCF Namibia, I established a genome resource bank for cheetahs, containing blood, tissue and semen samples from almost every cheetah we’ve come in contact with over the years. I’ve banked more than 320 semen samples from 200 different males. In the mid-1990s, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution, the first artificially inseminated cheetah cub was born from sperm we collected and froze in Namibia. In 2007, I collaborated with the Smithsonian and the University of California, Davis, researchers to produce the first-ever in vitro cheetah embryo developed to the blastocyst stage. Researchers from all over the world access these samples to perform studies, making their findings possible. Our team has built the only fully capable conservation genetics laboratory at an in situ conservation site in Africa. The lab is used to study not only the cheetah, but also many other endangered African species. Researchers from organisations outside CCF use the facility to process their samples, which generates an easy exchange of information. Our research team has also pioneered the use of scat-detection dogs to assist with cheetah census, genetic relatedness and demographic research.
What role does education and engaging with local communities play in the protection of endangered species like the cheetah?
With populations dwindling through most cheetah-range countries, cheetah survival depends on people using an informed, integrated approach to conservation that incorporates humans, wildlife, and habitat. In 2005, we began conducting month-long international courses to bring together conservation managers, scientists, and community representatives from cheetah-range countries in Africa and Iran. More than 300 participants are now leading the charge in their respective countries, managing cheetah conservation programs of their own. We aim to build capacity, with a goal of stabilising and increasing cheetah populations. To help educate young learners, I developed a program called Future Conservationists of Africa. We bring groups to the CCF Centre regularly, and CCF educators present programs to an estimated 25,000 children in schools throughout Namibia annually. This initiative is of critical importance as it exposes the nation’s youth to the importance of maintaining healthy ecosystems, thus creating a strong foundation for the future. More than 450,000 students have been impacted by CCF’s outreach programs since 1994. At the Centre, in addition to the young learners, CCF has hosted more than 30,000 farmers and emerging professionals for environmental coursework, workshops, and team-building exercises. To make our impact in Africa sustainable, we must educate the next generation, so they can take the reins and continue our work. This is the best hope for making a permanent place for cheetahs on Earth.
The CCF has helped to stabilise and even increase the wild cheetah population in Namibia. Which areas have you now identified as the most important for cheetah conservation?
One of the newest and potentially most important areas for cheetah conservation is Angola. Following three decades of civil war, the status of cheetah and other wildlife populations in this country is unknown. Our CCF researchers and Angolan collaborators are engaged in studies to determine which species have survived and in what number, and how the human population, many driven from established communities into national parks for safety, is impacting animal populations. We have determined the presence of cheetah, but we are still in the process of looking at prey species numbers to see if a healthy cheetah population could be sustained.