by Max Brantley
The Little Rock Zoo this weekend will roll out a new cheetah exhibit. It features mother and daughter cheetahs. They came from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va., and the zoo hopes to begin a successful breeding program.
Good timing. The work of that institute is featured in a New York Times article today about the difficulty of breeding endangered species like the cheetah in captivity. The article brings up the debate over breeding programs versus attempts to preserve natural habitats.
Each year the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington spends about $350,000 on breeding cheetahs at its 3,200-acre campus here in Front Royal, which houses 18 other species. That budget supports data collection and the logistics of long-distance matchmaking, among other expenses. Similar cheetah breeding programs exist at four other domestic centers run by zoos.
Yet despite two decades of sustained effort, the captive population of 281 cheetahs in North America gives birth to only 15 cubs, on average, a year, exactly half of what their keepers estimate is necessary to maintain a healthy replacement level.
Cheetahs are much more finicky than, say, their big-cat cousins, lions and tigers, which reproduce with ease. But they are not nearly as difficult to breed as pandas, which have not produced a cub in captivity in the United States since 2010.
Although they are not critically endangered, the world’s population of cheetahs has plummeted. At the turn of the 20th century, roughly 100,000 cheetahs roamed from Africa to the Mediterranean to India, according to the Smithsonian. Today, Panthera and zoo association officials estimate that 7,000 to 10,000 remain in the wild as a result of habitat loss, poaching, and conflicts with farmers and ranchers.