Cheetah Outreach: Does the End Justify the Means?
As I reported in a recent blog, the captive bred cheetah population is reaching epic proportions in South Africa with more than 600 cheetahs kept in about 80 facilities, like Cheetah Outreach, around the country and their conservation value is highly questionable.
Some of these captive facilities make genuine efforts to conserve the wild cheetah population with successful reintroduction programmes. Others support breeding programmes of Anatolian shepherd dogs, that are used to address human-wildlife conflict threatening predators like cheetah and leopard, by guarding livestock.
Cheetah Outreach – A Captive Cheetah Facility near Cape Town
One of those organisations is Cheetah Outreach, who have supported such Anatolian shepherd dog projects for many years and as such gained respect within the industry.
It is for this reason that I was genuinely shocked when on a recent visit I found not only 12 adult cheetahs at their facility, but also two cheetah cubs and several serval, caracal, black-backed jackal, bat-eared foxes and meerkats. Only a few are rescued animals, most are bred in captivity and hand-reared specifically to become ambassador species.
According to most facilities, these ambassador animals perform an important “educational” role by raising awareness of the plight of the cheetah. Cheetah Outreach is no exception. They use these ambassadors for educational purposes and to raise funds for Anatolian shepherd dog breeding projects.
The global move away from hands-on wildlife interactions is finally gaining traction in South Africa with tourism organisations, such as South African Tourism and SATSA, taking a firm stance against such practices. Against this background and the fact that animals are sentient beings, can we condone the (ab-)use of ambassador species for human entertainment and to raise funds for a legitimate cause?
Cheetah Outreach has 12 male adult cheetahs, all captive bred in facilities such as Cango Wildlife Ranch and Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre, and hand-reared. Eight are actively used as ambassadors that can be interacted with at their facility in Somerset West and hired for special on- and off-site functions, such as corporate events, fashion shoots, and weddings.
In addition, Cheetah Outreach offers cheetah cub petting – normally from September to March. Again, these cubs are not rescued orphans, as is often believed.
During my visit in December 2017, two five months old cubs were at the centre, both born in captivity and hand-reared. Daily interaction with the cubs of up to six hours a day (3 hrs in the morning and 3 hrs in the afternoon) is offered by the facility, at a cost of ZAR 250 per person.
During the peak summer holidays, people were queuing up for both the cub petting and adult cheetah interaction. Groups of up to six people were allowed in the cub enclosure and stayed on average for about 10 mins. Doing a rough calculation based on what we witnessed, an average of 180 people per day visit the cheetah cubs in peak season, generating ZAR 45,000 of revenue per day.
At the same time, about three adult cheetahs were also earning their keep, providing further income of ZAR 150 per adult and ZAR 90 per child for photo/selfie opportunities.
The facility is run with numerous local and international volunteers, hereby keeping their overheads to a minimum.
In the wider captive cheetah industry, once cubs outgrow the petting enclosure often at about nine months of age, they are either returned to the breeding farm, exported under CITES Appendix II for “zoological” reasons, or sold as pets to the Middle East. These guys will allegedly be heading for Sydney Zoo. Reintroduction into the wild is rarely attempted.
Cheetah Outreach – Does the End Justify the Means?
Although I would not want distract from the good Cheetah Outreach do in terms of education and raising funds for Anatolian dog breeding and livestock guarding projects, which are vital to the survival of the wild cheetah population, I do question the means by which these funds are raised.
I question the ethics of offering six hours of hands-on interaction with cheetah cubs per day. Cubs that are bred on demand.
Cubs that need to be worn out before going into the petting enclosure, according to this video posted on Facebook with the caption “Attempting to tire out these speedsters so they will sit still for their adoring public“.
Cubs that are forced to be interacted with even when they show a lack of human tolerance. During my visit, one of the cubs wanted to escape the paying public by moving outside the shaded petting area, but was still forced to be interacted with by every single person leaving the enclosure.
As I already indicated in my post the Role of Ambassador Species in Wildlife Tourism, we need to ask some vital questions here and hold wildlife facilities like Cheetah Outreach accountable.
- How can we justify a self-perpetuating industry that breeds cheetahs in captivity, removes the cubs from their mothers, bottle feeds them, sends them to a petting facility for a few months, as the cuteness factor draws in the paying public in droves, with no attempts to reintroduce them into the wild? It guarantees a steady supply of cubs for the petting industry, but at what cost and where is the conservation value?
- Is there a genuine need to physically interact with cubs and adult cheetahs to achieve the much-needed awareness of the conservation plight of the species?
- Could we be equally (or more) successful in educating the public, if we allow the ambassadors to behave more naturally at a distance, while well-informed guides provide the necessary information? I doubt whether people actually adsorb the information on the ecology and conservation of wild cheetahs during the excitement of having a selfie taken with an adult or baby cheetah.
- What are we teaching our children, when we allow them to interact with wildlife in this way? Surely there is much more value in having them experience these animals in the (semi-) wild.
- Are we not essentially confusing education with entertainment?
- Shouldn’t we be more honest in describing the role of such animals and admit they are pure photo props for monetary gain?
Cheetah Outreach, how can you proudly display the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare, if so clearly you don’t meet the freedom to express normal/appropriate behaviour. Taking cubs away from their natural mothers, bottle feed them to be used for petting, and having adult cheetahs on leashes as photo props can hardly be classed as expressing a “normal pattern of behaviour”.
Cheetah Outreach, isn’t it time to go back to basics and rethink the means by which funds are raised for cheetah conservation projects, allow these ambassadors to live an as natural as possible life in captivity, and stop supporting the breeding farms? Breeding of big cats in captivity has no proven conservation value.
The #HandsOffOurWildlife movement and many others in our industry say it over and over again: hands-on wildlife interaction and cub petting has no place in our contemporary tourism industry. It is unethical and will damage Brand SA.
Cheetah Outreach has been asked for comments on the above, but have declined the opportunity.