The Strange Way We Might Save Cheetahs From Extinction

By Mike Devlin on Thursday, April 17, 2014
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“Since after extinction no one will be present to take responsibility, we have to take full responsibility now.” —Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth

In A Nutshell

A number of factors have caused the population of cheetahs to plummet. Facing extinction, conservationists are turning to various creative ideas to keep the big cats extant. One strategy involves importing huge, fearsome guard dogs from Turkey to frighten the cheetah away from stalking within range of ranches and gun-toting farmers.

The Whole Bushel

The cheetah faces a number of unique issues for its continuation as a species. It exhibits a marked lack of genetic diversity—at some point during the last Ice Age, its numbers plummeted, and it survived only by extensive inbreeding. It breeds poorly in captivity. In the wild, it is forced to compete with far more formidable predators, who often strip it of its hard-won kill. Despite great breakaway speed, it is a poor hunter and cannot defend itself from hyenas, leopards, or lions. This weakness also means that kittens rarely make it to adulthood.

This frequently causes the big cats to attack farms and prey on domestic animals to survive, leading to conflict with humans. This generally leads to the cheetah getting gunned down by a farmer who cannot afford to lose stock to wild predation. The population of this big cat stood at 100,000 just a decade ago, but has fallen to an estimated 12,500 currently, leading many to believe that they are headed for extinction if steps are not soon taken.

One program dedicated to saving the cheetah from extinction is the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF). Begun in 1990 in Namibia, the home of the world’s largest cheetah population, the organization has found several unique solutions to keep the big cats safe. One of the CCF’s most innovative programs began in 1994 and involves importing a closely related dog breed called Kangals and Anatolian shepherds to Africa and giving them to farmers to help protect their herds. To date, over 350 dogs have been placed. Kangals and Anatolian shepherds are livestock guardian dogs from Turkey, of a primitive mastiff type. The largest specimens approach 70 kilograms (150 lb) and are called upon to take on wolves, bears, and jackals in their homeland. As they already hail from a hot and arid climate, these dogs do well in Namibia’s harshest areas.

The dogs are placed with herds while they are just puppies, allowing them to identify with livestock rather than humans. When cheetahs approach their ranch, they unleash an explosive bark. The big cats are notoriously timid; they would rather turn tail and seek out an easier snack than risk taking on the huge dog. Although they are meant to frighten away cheetahs, the dogs have proven capable of driving off baboons, caracals, leopards, and even human poachers. The CCF’s Livestock Guarding Dog program has proven so successful that there is a long waiting list for puppies, hopefully securing the future of the cheetah for many generations to come.

Show Me The Proof

Cheetah Conservation Fund: Livestock Guard Dogs
Wild Chronicles: Dog Saves Cheetah
Cheetah Conservation on The Tonight Show with David Letterman (video)
ABC News: Dogs Help Save Cheetah from Extinction