Tanganyika Wildlife Park is back in the swing of things, and this week we have a very special article for all of our animal lovers and keepers. This week, we’re featuring one of Africa’s big cats – cheetahs. These animals are in danger of extinction, but thankfully there are heroes out there saving them. We’ll be telling you all about these amazing people and the work they do to protect cheetahs. So stay tuned – it’s sure to be an informative and interesting post!
Meeting the Heroes
Earlier this month, our team had the exciting opportunity to meet one of our conservations face to face – well, over Zoom, anyway. Tanganyika donates annually to several in situ conservation partners that work with species in the wild. And, while our team has a general idea of the work that each conservation partner does, our Chief of Connections, LynnLee Schmidt, wanted us to be able to put a face to the organizations that we work with.
Thanks to the marvels of modern technology, we were fortunate enough to meet Mary and Cosmas from Action for Cheetahs in Kenya (ACK). ACK was founded in 2009 and strives to promote the conservation of cheetahs in Kenya through research, awareness, and community participation. Within Kenya, ACK runs several different initiates, including ongoing research projects, community outreach, and a K-9 unit (with dogs trained to find cheetah scat – allowing ACK to analyze more data with less invasive means and fewer man hours). Additionally, ACK employs people from the communities that share space – and resources – with cheetahs.
During our Zoom call, members of Team Tanganyika were able to ask Mary and Cosmas about their work and the challenges they are experiencing. Understanding what organizations like ACK are facing as “boots on the ground” will help us better education our guests not only about the amazing animals in our care, but also about the threats facing their wild counterparts.
When we met, Mary was actually in Somaliland working with another nonprofit, the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), who had recently received a seizure of more than a dozen cheetah cubs. In the ultimate “small work” moment, one of our 2021 Education Interns, Bijou MacDonald, is actually volunteering in Somaliland with CCF right now! Mary was working alongside Bijou and her fellow volunteers to make sure the cubs were receiving the best care possible.
Mary relayed to us that one of the biggest current threats facing cheetah populations is the exotic pet trade. In many places in the world – particularly in the Middle East – having a pet cheetah is seen as very prestigious, leading to a high demand for the illegal exportation of cubs out of Africa in general, and Somaliland in particular. Though Somaliland is a major conduit for cheetah cubs leaving Africa, not all the cubs confiscated there are from Somaliland. Genetic testing allows CCF to determine where in African these cubs are being taken from.
Unfortunately, Mary reported that most of the cubs that come into CCF’s care are positive for feline infectious peritonitis virus (FIPV) and aren’t good candidates for release into the wild. In a perfect world, all of the cats confiscated by CCF would be released back into the wild, but of the 60 cats currently in their care, the majority are FIPV-positive and can’t be released.
Cosmas, a native Kenyan, was able to share with us some of the political struggles that ACK and other conservation organizations are facing. Eco-tourism is one of the most important industries in Kenya and therefore most legislation that pertains to the environment focuses on eco-tourism. There has been some anti-trafficking legislation, but that has only served to make it more difficult for organizations like ACK to export biological materials (like scat) for DNA testing. ACK is currently working with Kenyan authorities to show the value of these analyses and that a healthy cheetah population is good for Kenyan tourism.
While Mary, Cosmas, and the rest of the ACK are dedicated to cheetah conservation, they impressed upon us how crucial their efforts are to help all wildlife. Much of ACK’s research in recent years has focused on mitigating human-wildlife conflicts and finding solutions that are situation-specific. As Mary and Cosmas explained, mitigating these conflicts can’t – and shouldn’t – be a one size fits all approach. In dealing with so many different communities, circumstances, and cultural norms, ACK’s rangers with closely with the effected community to find a solution that works best for everyone involved.
Ultimately, the most important thing I took away from our meeting with Mary and Cosmas is that we’re all in this together and everyone had a crucial role to play. At zoos like Tanganyika, we’re able to give people incredible experiences that connect them to the natural world, participate in breeding programs with other zoos around the world, and share stories from the work our conservation partners are doing. Nonprofits like ACK are on the “front lines” working with species – and the communities they inhabit – to make a difference for wild populations. And all of us – me, you, and everyone else out there – can learn about incredible species like the cheetah and what we can do to help these species thrive.
About the Author: Erinn Bock has been the Education Curator at TWP since 2009. Born and raised in San Jose, California, she studied Wildlife Biology and English Literature at Kansas State University. Ever since watching the first episode of The Crocodile Hunter as a kid, she’s known that she wanted to use her passion for the natural world to help connect people to the incredible animals on our planet. When Erinn’s not teaching camp or helping teachers plan field trips, she loves spending time reading, crafting, and taking care of her “mini zoo” at home.