You may not have had “cheetah matchmaker” featured at your high school career fair, but that’s just what Vincent van der Merwe’s business card may as well read. But trying to repopulate the highly vulnerable species can be as dangerous as it is exciting. Watch the video to see what happens when van der Merwe tries to translocate a very unhappy cheetah across South Africa.
In the last hundred years, Africa’s human population has increased twentyfold, pushing cheetahs out of 91 percent of their historic range. Today around 7,100 cheetah live in the wild, according to a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That’s down from an estimated 14,000 cheetah in 1975. (Read “Cheetahs Are Dangerously Close to Extinction.”)
The big cats once roamed nearly all of Africa and much of Asia, but their population is now confined predominantly to three African countries: Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa. The species is already almost extinct in Asia, with fewer than 50 individuals remaining in one isolated pocket of Iran.
National Geographic caught up with Vincent van der Merwe, a National Geographic Big Cats Initiative grantee and conservation biologist, to learn more about his work as a big cat Cupid.
Q. What’s the current state of cheetah conservation in South Africa?
South Africa is Africa’s most developed country, so it’s particularly difficult for cheetah to traverse the landscape and long gone are the wide, open spaces for cheetah to roam freely. All that we are left with are fragments of natural habitat. What we have done with our few remaining wildlife reserves is fenced them, so we have to swap individuals between these reserves to maintain genetic integrity and prevent inbreeding. And South Africa is the only country, worldwide, where we’ve actually seen an increase in wild cheetah numbers.
One of the biggest and most successful conservation operations in Africa is the non-profit African Parks Network (APN). They manage 10 large reserves in 7 countries across Africa, and they’ve essentially created safe space for a myriad of species over 600,000 hectares of land. These are the real heroes of conservation. So it’s really great to be working with APN and reintroducing species into their reserves.
What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of the fencing approach?
The disadvantage is that you’re limiting gene flow, so there is potential for inbreeding. The advantages are that you limit human movement into reserves, you cut down poaching, you cut down snaring, and effectively create safe space for cheetahs. Fencing plays the crucial role of creating safe space for wildlife. This approach is undoubtedly working, and our numbers in South Africa are up to about 1,200 cheetah, the third largest population worldwide.
How do you match up potential cheetah mates?
I manage a studbook for  cheetah in 53 different reserves across the country as part of the EWT’s Carnivore Conservation Programme. I effectively identify which cheetah are related to each other and we prevent putting those cheetah onto the same reserves. It’s “human mediated gene flow,” which sounds very sexy, but it’s actually just a case of conservationists loading cheetah onto their vehicle and driving them to a new reserve to promote gene flow.
What are some of the risks that the cheetahs face during the immobilization and transportation process?
It’s an incredibly stressful experience for these wide ranging animals to be put into these small, confined spaces for up to a 20-hour drive. The cheetah are at risk of heat exhaustion, pneumonia, or capture myopathy, which is a buildup of lactic acid in the body due to stress.
We’ve also learned that cheetah that come from reserves that don’t have lion—we call these “lion-naïve” cheetah—do not perform very well when you move them onto reserves with lion. Cheetah need to be lion-savvy, they also need to be leopard and hyena-savvy. You cannot take a cheetah from a predator-free environment and try and put them into a fenced area with a high density of predators. Those animals simply do not compete very well.
Also, cheetah need a short period of time to acclimatize to their new environment. When we bring cheetah to new reserves, we put them into an enclosure called a “boma” for six weeks to three months. It allows the cheetah to realize what other large predators are present and most importantly, it kills their homing instinct. As with any cat species, they have an extinct to go back to where they originally came from. In one case we had a cheetah that walked over 300 kilometers back to its reserve of origin.
What happens after they’re released from the boma and onto the reserve?
The favorite part of my job is definitely, without a doubt, getting to that stage where you open up the boma gate and let that animal go, and be a cheetah, do what a normal cheetah does, and watching it run off into the bush, and to have access to wide, open spaces again, and to do what cheetah normally do. That’s an incredibly rewarding and enriching experience.
We do carefully monitor them for two to three weeks post-release, just to make sure that they are hunting and avoiding the other predators successfully. If they’re not hunting successfully, there is a little bit of supplementary feedings. We’ll go and drop an impala carcass for them or a warthog carcass just to give them that little bit more energy to push them to hunt successfully and naturally. Normally they catch onto it in about one or two weeks. In some cases, we’ve had cheetah catching prey just five minutes after release.
As a scientist you need to be objective, but is there any sort of personal connection? What’s that balance like for you?
When you actively work with these animals there is no doubt that you develop a slight emotional connection. For example, I did the post-release monitoring for a female cheetah and every morning and every afternoon I was going out to monitor her progress. You see her develop as a cheetah and into strong mother. At first when she’s released, she’s clumsy, she doesn’t know the new reserve, she walks silly routes next to the little rivers where the leopards are hanging out, she walks smack, bang right into the middle of the core lion territory, she makes silly decisions hunting species that are well out of her size range. But in the process she learns and you develop a bond with these animals. Eventually, when they do give birth to that first litter you see that motherly instinct come out, they become more stern. And the very best moment is when you get that phone call from the reserve manger saying, “Vincent, we’ve got four new cubs that were born to the cheetah that you brought in here six months ago.”
That is what really brings joy to my heart.
This interview has been edited for length and content.
For more on big cats, tune in to Big Cat Week, premiering Monday, Feb. 20, at 9/8c on Nat Geo WILD and learn more about the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative, a global initiative that supports scientists and conservationists working to save big cats in the wild. NatGeoBigCats.Org
Learn more about the science and exploration supported by the nonprofit National Geographic Society at natgeo.org/grants.
SENIOR PRODUCER: Sarah Joseph
PRODUCER/EDITOR: Nora Rappaport