Research and conservation projects that focus on the rehabilitation and release of large predators are uniquely challenging. Because of their size, large predators have a smaller selection of prey species available and making a successful hunt depends on specialized skills learned from their mothers. It is not possible to teach these skills in an artificial (i.e. captive) setting. As such, successfully releasing large predators after rehabilitation in captivity has proven very difficult. Additionally, large predators such as cheetahs are often subject to anthropogenic pressures such as human–wildlife conflict, habitat loss, and the illegal wildlife/pet trade.

Left: A group of five cheetahs being cared for at CCF’s Research and Education Centre in Namibia. Photo: Eli Walker/Cheetah Conservation Fund. Right: Two wild-born offspring of a CCF rehabilitated cheetah released into Erindi Private Game Reserve in 2019. The tracking collars are crucial for monitoring their movement and behaviour. Photo: fnventor/Cheetah Conservation Fund

The Cheetah Conservation Fund has been rescuing cheetahs orphaned as a result of these threats throughout Namibia for most of the last 30 years, and we have researched methodologies over the past 20 years to return as many of these orphans to the wild as possible. Our research presents the rehabilitation and release protocol developed over the last 15 years releasing these rehabilitated orphans in certain areas in Namibia. Under this protocol, we have found that rehabilitated orphans have similar chances of survival as wild cheetahs translocated throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

When I joined the Cheetah Conservation Fund as an intern in 2011, the release programme had already successfully returned several rehabilitated orphans to the wild, and in 2015 I began coordinating the rehabilitation and release efforts. Our protocol involves two primary components: the management of orphans in captivity and the intensive post-release monitoring of rehabilitated orphans. In captivity there is very little we can do to teach a wild animal how to be wild, but is vital that we, as caretakers, work to balance the habituation levels (i.e. how comfortable an animal is with humans) of a release candidate during this time.

Cheetah Conservation Fund’s Founder and Executive Director Dr. Laurie Marker has released cheetahs since the early 1990’s. Photos: Eli Walker/Cheetah Conservation Fund

For post-release monitoring, we need a small level of habituation within our release candidates, as it is important to be able to reliably observe the animal in the wild post-release. However, being overly comfortable with humans could be dangerous for a wild cheetah, so we are careful that our rehabilitation process ensures an appropriate balance of habituation during captivity. While their instincts are strong, cheetahs in the wild spend 2 years with their mother learning survival skills before becoming independent, and the conditions they face in the wild are impossible to recreate in captivity. We have found that orphaned cheetahs are capable of figuring out these skills through trial and error in the wild. Our post-release protocol focuses on providing them the safest conditions possible through supplemental feeding and other monitoring support during the first weeks of their release.

In our study, nearly all released animals achieved independence (hunting successfully and regularly and no longer requiring supplemental feeding) within a few weeks post-release. We found they had similar 1- and 2-year survival probabilities as their wild counterparts translocated within southern Africa.

Cheetah Conservation Fund, Dr. Laurie Marker, Eli Walker and CCF’s veterinary staff are joined by the staff of Erindi Private Game Reserve to perform a cheetah work-up and re-collaring on release candidates for 2022. Photos: Cheetah Conservation Fund

Saving the cheetah in the wild is a multi-prong process. Although education and outreach efforts are vital to address the main threats to the cheetah, animals are still being removed from the wild at an alarming rate. Because the population of cheetahs has diminished, with less than 7,500 cheetahs remaining worldwide, a reliable protocol for returning injured/orphaned cheetahs to the wild could be an important tool for the species’ conservation. As cheetahs now only occur in 9% of their historical range, reintroduction efforts into areas of their historical range where they are currently extinct could prove effective. Sourcing animals for these efforts, however, presents several challenges. As the remaining cheetah populations are small and fragmented, care must be taken not to introduce excessive pressure onto a population by removing too many animals for reintroduction elsewhere. Thus, with careful planning, utilizing individuals that have already been removed from the wild for such reintroduction efforts, such as our rehabilitated orphans, could help mitigate the pressure on source cheetah populations.

Photos: Cheetah Conservation Fund

Reestablishing healthy populations of cheetahs across the species’ range requires effort from all stakeholders. We hope to see our protocol implemented, refined and improved by cheetah conservation efforts throughout the cheetah’s current and historical range, to secure a future for the cheetah, and we welcome all collaboration in such efforts. Our work would not have been possible without the countless partners we’ve worked with throughout this study. We would particularly like to thank the Namibian Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism for their long-term and continual support of our work in Namibia.

The article Recommendations for the rehabilitation and release of wild-born, captive-raised cheetahs: the importance of pre- and post-release management for optimizing survival is available in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

Eli Walker is a conservation biologist and has been with the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) since 2011. Together with Dr. Marker and CCF’s animal care and ecological research teams, as well as the support of Namibia’s Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism, Eli has worked to continue pushing forward CCF’s rehabilitation and release programme within Namibia since 2014.