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Hitting the Reset Button
dusk. As the African sun sets, casting a reddish glow on the land, two male
cheetahs are on the prowl hunting for their prey. Jabari, the bigger of the
two, spots a group of young impalas in the distance and moves silently in their
direction. Kumbe follows his brother’s lead as they approach quietly, crouched
low in the grass. When the moment is right, Jabari sprints into the open and
the group of impalas attempt to disperse in a flurry of movement.
Jabari veers to the right, his eyes set on one particular impala. The chase is on. The young impala, picking up speed, appears at first to outrun Jabari, but as Kumbe rounds out from the other side, the prey is quickly cornered. After its brief final attempt at escape, the impala is captured. Jabari carries the impala by its neck a few feet farther to where the grass is higher. Kumbe follows. The two brothers set themselves down on their bellies to feast – the reward for their intense efforts.
This event, though imagined, is seemingly ordinary. It would suggest that the cheetah population in the wild could thrive, uninhibited by humans or other larger animals, in its natural habitat. It would mean that Jabari and Kumbe could survive and reproduce, thereby ensuring the survival of their species. The current reality of cheetahs is not so simple.
That’s why Parc Safari, in collaboration with other zoos and animal conservation organizations across the world, has been working tirelessly on cheetah conservation as a member of the Species Survival Plan (SSP).
The SSP was developed by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums in 1981 to help ensure the survival of endangered species in the wild. Sometimes referred to as “captive breeding”, the practice involves many moving parts and collaborators across the world to save a species from extinction due to habitat loss, fragmentation, over hunting or fishing, poaching, pollution or disease.
The SSP’s goal is to ensure the survival of a species in order to repopulate in the wild once the animals born in captivity have been properly trained to survive in their natural habitat. The cheetah, considered the fastest land animal in the world, is on the brink of being classified as an endangered species, with just 7100 estimated to be alive in the wild in 2016.
Jabari and Kumbe—born in July 2019 at Parc Safari—have been preparing and training for their role in saving their own species. At just a year and a half old, these brothers are about to embark on a huge mission halfway across the world. How’s that for pressure to perform?
Why Jabari & Kumbe?
There are multiple reasons that have contributed to the cheetah struggling to survive in the wild. Along with human-caused issues, cheetahs are known for not defending their ‘kill’, which can incite other animals, such as lions or hyenas, to steal the cheetah’s catch. Survival in the wild isn’t as simple as one might think. It goes way beyond being able to hunt one’s own food.
One of the key reasons cheetahs are considered a vulnerable species lies in their genetics. Cheetahs lack genetic diversity and as a such, are often plagued with birth abnormalities. Coupled with the fact that cheetahs are generally solitary animals, it can be a challenge for this species to naturally find a good mate with whom to reproduce.
Parc Safari’s cheetah conservation program has had several successes over the past few years, including being the birthplace of the first Quebec-born cubs in history. According to Nathalie Santerre, Director of Zoology at Parc Safari, only about 16-17 per cent of cheetahs in captivity actually breed, making it all the more challenging for species conservation. “Cheetahs are highly stressed cats and are not always easy to match up,” she says. In addition to the lack of genetic diversity, low fertility rates in males further compound the problem.
With the SSP, it all starts with a genetic match. When healthy cheetah cubs are born in captivity, their genetic makeup is tracked and analyzed with the genetics of other cheetahs across the world to search for potential matches. When a match is found, typically zoos will collaborate with one another to match male and female cheetahs with the goal of producing a healthy litter, so that those cubs may potentially be selected for special training followed by an eventual release into a semi-wild environment to continue to reproduce with a strong genetic backing. “It’s not just about a return to the wild. It’s about survival of the species,” says Santerre.
In 2013, a male cheetah named Pendo from South Africa was brought to live at Parc Safari as part of the SSP. Eventually a female match named Cleo was found who was born at an Ontario zoo. According to Santerre, Cleo was not interested in any of the males presented to her and was sent to Parc Safari in 2016. The hope was that she would take to Pendo and they would produce a healthy litter from a genetic standpoint. Thanks to the experience and expertise of zoologists such as Violaine Garant and Julie Brunelle, Cleo and Pendo have had two litters to date.
It was their most recent litter in 2019—the very same that brought Jabari and Kumbe into the world—that sent waves all the way to Africa. As it turns out, the two brothers both qualified very high on the list of coveted genetics to conserve the species. “It basically means that they have a very solid lineage in terms of their overall genetics and health,” says Brunelle. “Many cheetahs have health problems with their digestive and immune systems, but Jabari and Kumbe really fit the markers for strong genetics.”
According to Garant, many cheetahs only live between seven and nine years and they rarely make it to 10 years of age. “This is why it’s so important to continue the genetic line,” she says. “Even when they manage to mate, often the cubs may have genetic defects and are unable to care for themselves and sometimes don’t survive.” At Parc Safari, the zoologists may need to intervene by bottle feeding a cub for medical reasons or if the mother is aloof.
Brunelle, whose role consists of helping the male and female cheetahs get acquainted while also studying the female’s behavior to asses when she’s ready to mate, says that even if the cheetahs are a good match, there’s no guarantee that the female will accept any of the potential male matches she is presented with.
Fortunately, Pendo and Cleo hit it off, and Jabari and Kumbe have been selected for special training so that they can be key players in their own species conservation. At some point in the next few months, the two brothers will be ready for their biggest adventure yet; heading to Africa to get to know their new home in a semi-wild environment under the caring and watchful eyes of the SSP’s collaborators.
Successfully transferring Jabari and Kumbe to Africa is like hitting the reset button on a species’ genetics. Once the brothers begin to survive and thrive in their new home, they are likely to reproduce and keep a strong genetic lineage going.
Training & Preparation
Even if Jabari and Kumbe have everything going for them from a genetics standpoint, they still share a common cheetah characteristic; being picky eaters. Add to that their fragile digestive systems and the potential for affinity with humans…it’s just not a recipe for survival in the wild.
Much of the training and preparation before the voyage to Africa surrounds training the brothers on their eating habits. “We have to really prepare their digestive system to match what they might find in the wild in Africa,” says Garant. “So, we have to feed them entire chickens and rabbits, for example.”
Because Jabari and Kumbe have been selected for “re-wilding”, human interaction must remain very minimal. This is in stark contrast to some of their siblings and cousins who have been raised by human hand. Cheetahs are typically ready to be on their own at about 1.5 years old, as the average mothering period is between 18 and 22 months.
This Fall, Garant and Brunelle will oversee the separation practice. Slowly, Jabari and Kumbe will be weaned off their mother’s care as would naturally happen in the wild. They will then receive a series of final veterinary check ups to ensure they are ready and fit to travel to Africa.
Santerre handles the arduous task of all the paperwork involved in the brothers’ preparation here in Quebec and for their upcoming move to Africa. Having worked at Parc Safari for the past 16 years, Santerre has worked with multiple species conservation efforts. “Our goal with the cheetahs, and with all of our animals, is to give them the best life we can,” she says. “Because the natural migration of animals doesn’t exist anymore, genetic issues arise, so everything we do is to help sustain a healthy population.”
By releasing Jabari and Kumbe into a semi-wild protected environment, their genetic lineage can strengthen the future genome pool and ultimately help the cheetah avoid extinction. Once the brothers arrive in Africa, they will begin their re-wilding training. They will be taught to hunt using the lure system, they will be introduced to certain meats that we don’t have here in Canada and they will learn to stay away from humans.
As their keepers in Africa enlarge the space that Jabari and Kumbe can freely roam in, they will learn to defend themselves and mark their territory. “As it’s a semi-wild environment, there won’t be lions or leopards or other predators,” says Garant. “They will have access to small prey that they can actually catch on their own.”
Garant and Brunelle say that the two brothers—despite sharing the same coveted genes that garnered them the prestige they currently carry—have their own unique characteristics. Jabari is considered a fonceur and doesn’t mind the presence of humans. He’s also the larger of the two, weighing about 90 pounds. He’s an explorer, and his brother Kumbe is never far behind. Kumbe is more of a laid-back, playful cat who is very curious and likes to analyse and understand everything going on around him.
When it’s their time to take on the mission of a lifetime, Jabari and Kumbe will be ready. African sunsets and a whole new world await them.
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