Wildlife centres in UAE toast births of cheetahs

Seven cheetahs have been born this year as part of a captive breeding programme that aims to eventually release the animals into the African wilderness.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES,  July 23, 2012. Declan O'Donovan, Director of Wildlife, with Cheetah's at the breeding project for re-introduction and creation of a larger captive breeding pool at the Wadi Al Safa Wildlife Centre's private collection in Al Awir. (ANTONIE ROBERTSON / The National)
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DUBAI // Seven cheetahs have been born this year as part of a captive breeding programme that aims to eventually release the animals into the African wilderness.
The youngest cub was delivered a month ago at Sheikh Butti bin Juma Al Maktoum Wildlife Centre in Dubai, and is being hand-reared by the manager, Alan Stephenson, at his home.
Another privately owned park participating in the scheme, Dubai's Wadi Al Safa Wildlife Centre, has just sent two cheetahs to Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation in Qatar, where they will breed.
The North African cheetah is critically endangered and the political instability in its traditional range is hampering conservation efforts. It is much rarer than the species found in southern Africa.
The idea of the project is to ensure there are strong, viable specimens available for release when conditions become suitable. This is done by carefully matching pairs to avoid inbreeding and produce the greatest possible genetic diversity.
Cheetahs from the Sheikh Butti collection and the Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife in Sharjah, which is also involved in the breeding programme, have been successfully released into the wild on Sir Bani Yas Island in Abu Dhabi.  The project is being coordinated and managed by the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA).
"There are groups here in the UAE who have cheetahs and there is cooperation between them," said Declan O'Donovan, director of wildlife services at Wadi Al Safa. "We work closely with Sheikh Butti, the breeding centre in Sharjah, and other facilities, so it's not just something we're doing ourselves. We have meetings and discuss what animals we can exchange.
"It's come on a long way in the last few years - there is a lot more openness and disclosure of what animals are available for breeding."
Mr Stephenson said: "North Africa is politically quite unstable and, when you have that, wildlife goes out the window. So at least we'll have a genetic pool here, so that when we need to reintroduce animals once again, we can.
"We donated some cheetahs and they have been introduced successfully on Sir Bani Yas Island, so it does work."
Wadi Al Safa, Sheikh Butti and the Sharjah centre have bred the most cheetahs and have exported animals to zoos and wildlife centres in the UK, France, Ireland, Switzerland and Holland as part of the breeding programme.
EAZA's stud book coordinator is Sean McKeown, who formerly managed Sheikh Butti's collection. He uses special software to work out which individual cheetahs should mate to achieve the best results, and in September he will send his recommendations for the coming year to the centres.
Sheikh Butti pioneered the captive breeding of cheetahs in the Middle East. The seven newcomers have joined 23 adults at the centre, which is a member of EAZA and follows Mr McKeown's guidelines on what are genetically the best breeding combinations for the species.
There were some additional births but, as happens in the wild, not all survived.
Wadi Al Safa currently has 23 adult cheetahs. Mr O'Donovan is critical of those who keep cheetahs and other big cats as house pets.
"I don't think it's acceptable," he said. "All our cats are second or third-generation captive-bred and we're keeping them for a specific purpose. The idea of keeping them as a trophy, I don't think is right.
"They're not suitable for a house. I've hand-reared some at home and I keep them for one or two months before bringing them into the collection so that they can be socialised with other cheetahs without becoming too imprinted on their human hosts.
"But I wouldn't keep them any longer because they become too big. They'll destroy your house as well - they will chew through your favourite coffee table."