One day, we might be able to say that the dog saved the cheetah from extinction.
Kittens and puppies growing up together isn’t that strange, but most people don’t imagine this with baby cheetahs in the mix.
The cheetah is the fastest cat, in terms of running. In terms of breeding, it might be one of the slowest, to the point where it doesn’t happen at all. National Geographic reported in December 2016 that there were around 7,100 left in the wild. This is close to complete extinction. The population got so low for several reasons, including poaching, desperate farm owners protecting their land, and also the nature of the cat's panicky personality. Cheetahs are anxious and nervous. Equipped with thin bodies built for speed, they’d rather outrun enemies than put up a fight. Their jaws are not as strong as other cats, and their teeth are not as large, so if another predator comes along after a cheetah has made a kill, the cheetah will likely not defend its food. In zoos and habitats, the instinct to remain anxious and alert doesn’t leave, even if they are safe from predators. In this case, their energy has nowhere to go. They are stuck, jittery and restless, waiting for something to happen.
When cats are this nervous, they aren’t as likely to mate.
Many zoos, such as the Cincinnati, Columbus, Metro Richmond, and San Diego zoos, have had canines and cats cohabiting in order to save the species, according to CBS News. In 2013, the Dallas Zoo raised two cheetah kittens and a black Labrador puppy, only two days younger than the cats, together.
Pairing the animals for a new cross-species litter works because of the animals’ personalities. Though dogs and cats are very different, and dog people may not see eye-to-eye with cat people, it is clear that one can help the other by learning to be more playful and relaxed. The overall goal is for the puppies to teach these small differences of behavior to the cheetah cubs. They play together, and the dogs calm the cats when needed, as a litter mate, sibling, and best friend, through thick and thin.
This is not the only way that dogs have helped to save the species. The Cheetah Conservation Fund encouraged the use of large dogs, specifically the Anatolian Shepherd, on farms in areas of Namibia where cheetahs are native. Since cheetahs learned sometimes it is easier to sneak onto farmland for a good snack rather than hunt, most of the time farmers shoot them down to save their herds. However, the Anatolian Shepherd is scary enough to keep cats from creeping onto the land. With a bark, the cheetah goes running, and there is no reason for the farmer to harm the animal. Since 1994, when the use of the Anatolian Shepherd was first introduced in Namibia, the cheetah population has reportedly doubled in size. Right now it is possible to donate to the Conservation Fund, or even sponsor an Anatolian Shepherd to participate in the program.
While a trip to Namibia is likely not an easy option, heading down to the local zoo is. Many zoos now are hopping on the conservation train by bringing in dogs to stay with their cheetahs, often adopted mutts from local shelters or they are sometimes Labradors or Shepherds. Now it is easy to witness the unusual dual-species friendship firsthand. It is heartwarming enough to see from the CBS news video, as a Labrador dog cuddles and licks a cheetah after surgery. The caretakers even stressed that they believed the cub wouldn’t have made it without her canine sibling. While dogs and cats might be neighborhood enemies, in the game of conservation, their friendship can save the species.
Cheetahs and giraffes have been placed on the conservation "red list" due to collapsing populations.
Experts are warning that two iconic animals are nearing extinction.
Giraffes, world’s tallest animals, suffered a grave decline in their population, losing 40% of it in the last 30 years. There are about 97,500 giraffes in the world today, plummeting from 157,000.
Giraffes were added to the so-called “red list” of threatened species, compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They were given a ‘vulnerable’ status.
Cheetahs, world’s fastest land animals, are faring even worse. There are about 7,100 of them remaining in the wild, with their numbers decimated in places like Zimbabwe by 85%, according to a new study from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Calls are out to change its status on the “red list” from “vulnerable” to “endangered”.
“We’ve just hit the reset button in our understanding of how close cheetahs are to extinction,” said Dr. Kim Young-Overton, from Panthera, a wild cat conservation organization. “The takeaway from this pinnacle study is that securing protected areas alone is not enough. We must think bigger, conserving across the mosaic of protected and unprotected landscapes that these far-reaching cats inhabit, If we are to avert the otherwise certain loss of the cheetah forever.”
Animals go extinct for a variety of reasons, most of them having to do with human interference in their habitats. In fact, it’s considered the animal kingdom is undergoing a “mass extinction”. An analysis of wild creatures found that their number will be reduced by two-thirds come 2020, if compared to 1970.
The list currently features 24,000 species at risk of extinction. Notably, the “red list” recently added 700 new bird species to its listing, 13 of which already went extinct.
“Many species are slipping away before we can even describe them,” said Inger Andersen, the director general of IUCN. “This red list update shows that the scale of the global extinction crisis may be even greater than we thought. Governments gathered at the UN biodiversity summit have the immense responsibility to step up their efforts to protect our planet’s biodiversity – not just for its own sake but for human imperatives such as food security and sustainable development.”
Of course, as with all things, there are naysayers, who view protecting endangered species as a waste of money that goes against survival of the fittest - a natural process. A 2012 study estimated it would cost $76 billion per year to preserve land animals under threat. And then there are similar costs for the marine animals. Why should we spend so much money and who should be spending it? What about helping people instead?
There’s also something to be said - why should we care specifically about giraffes and cheetahs? Why are they more special than, let’s say, chicken? Of course, giraffes and cheetahs are more rare, but consider how many chicken are slaughtered every year - about 8-9 billion in the U.S. alone. Worldwide, this number, while probably hard to exactly estimate, is north of 50 billion.
A chicken peers out from a cage at the Sanoh chicken farm January 27, 2007 in Suphanburi, Thailand. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
Why do we not seem to care for the yearly extermination of a mind-boggling number of chicken? Ok, sure, they seem to be replaceable, but life is life. We value the esthetics of giraffes and cheetahs, beautiful and graceful animals, and thus exercise our choice to try to save them. What if we thought about humans that way? Only saving the pretty ones.
Against all this is, of course, the argument that biodiversity is key to preserving a healthy ecosystem, which we, humans, rely on for our own survival. Studies by ecologist Robert Constanza estimated that the benefits of conservation also have a significant economic impact. They outweighs the costs by a factor of 100.
And certainly humans are the ones increasing the rate of extinction. It is not proceeding at a rate observed in the past. You can argue that humans are also part of nature and as such everything we do is a natural process. But that seems like a way to absolve ourselves of any free will and responsibility.
The Endangered Species Act of 1973, an achievement of President Richard Nixon’s administration, provides a great summary argument for why saving endangered species is important, saying they “are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people.”
Still, at the end of the day, should we save giraffes and cheetahs? The answer depends on how you view the world. Let’s hope no one has to make such decisions about the human race some time down the line - like our future AI or alien overlords.
Cover photos: Mashatu game reserve. Botswana. Credit: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images.