South African cheetah petting programs: exploitative entertainment or conservation?


At least 600 cheetahs are kept in captivity in South African tourism facilities, offering interactions and cub petting in the name of conservation and education. Do these facilities truly promote the conservation of free-ranging cheetahs or is this just an easy revenue stream?

One or two of about 80 captive cheetah facilities currently operating make genuine efforts to conserve the wild cheetah population by attempting reintroduction programs. Others support breeding programs of Anatolian shepherd dogs, who are used to address human-wildlife conflict with predators like cheetahs and leopards.

Cheetah Outreach in Somerset West fits in the latter category, and have been supporting Anatolian shepherd dog projects for many years. As such, they have gained respect within the tourism industry. It was therefore quite shocking to find not only 12 adult cheetahs, but also two five-month-old cheetah cubs, and several servals, caracals, black-backed jackals, bat-eared foxes and meerkats at their facility on a recent visit.

Most of these so-called ‘species ambassadors’ are available for petting, and of course for the compulsory photo opportunity. Some of the adult cheetahs can even be hired for special off-site functions, such as corporate events, fashion shoots, and even weddings. Cheetah Outreach is certainly not alone in such wide-ranging hands-on animal interaction offerings.

The little-known reality is that the cheetah cubs in Cheetah Outreach’s petting enclosure are not rescued orphans, as is often believed. They are bred on demand at a breeding facility in South Africa, removed from their mothers prematurely, and bottle fed to habituate them for cub petting.

When cubs are available at the center, daily interaction of up to six hours a day is on offer at a cost of 250 rand per person, equal to about 18 USD. This can generate an estimated 45,000 rand of revenue per day in peak season, or about 3,200 USD. Adult cheetahs on leashes also earn their keep, providing further income through selfie opportunities.

According to the facility, these ambassador animals perform an important “educational” role by raising awareness of the plight of the wild cheetah, and by raising funds for Anatolian shepherd dog breeding projects. However, we wonder if the ends justify the means.

The conservation value of any of these habituated cheetahs is highly questionable. Dr. Paul Funston, senior director of Panthera’s Lion and Cheetah Programs, says, “Captive breeding of cheetahs is not conservation, never has been and never will be!” In the current South African context, captive breeding without successful reintroduction is preservation at best, but never conservation.

In the wider captive cheetah industry, as is true with lions, cubs outgrow the petting enclosure when they are about nine months old. At this point they are either promoted to become full-fledged ambassadors and stay at the facility, returned to the breeding farm for further breeding, exported under CITES Appendix II for “zoological” reasons, or are sold as pets to the Middle East.

There is an additional, rarely mentioned issue: the potential danger of interacting with adult predators. In a recent analysis by the Endangered Wildlife Trust, it was found that 38% of all known incidents involving carnivores were attacks by captive cheetahs. This was the second highest attack rate after captive lions.

The global move away from captive breeding and hands-on wildlife interactions is gaining traction in South Africa with tourism organisations, such as South African Tourism and Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (SATSA), taking a firm stance against such practices. Against this background and the now widely-accepted position that animals are sentient beings, can we condone the use of species ambassadors for human entertainment and fundraising?

Annie Beckhelling, founder of Cheetah Outreach, says a Masters’ study carried out at their facility found “there was no altered behaviors during encounters, purring increased and there was a tendency to reduce heart rate with increasing people contact.” They therefore conclude that human interactions are beneficial for the animals.

Besides this, there are some vital questions that need to be answered to hold all captive wildlife facilities accountable (unfortunately, Cheetah Outreach never responded to these questions):

  • How can we justify a self-perpetuating captive breeding industry that breeds cheetahs on demand and takes them away from their mothers prematurely, with no attempt to reintroduce them into the wild? This practice 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, in order to achieve much-needed awareness of the conservation plight of the species?
  • Could we be equally (or more) successful in educating the public, if we allow ambassadors to behave more naturally at a distance, while well-informed guides provide necessary information? Do people even absorb information about the ecology and conservation of wild cheetahs during the excitement of having a selfie taken with an adult or baby cheetah?
  • Are we not essentially confusing education with entertainment? Should we not be more honest in describing the role of such animals and admit they are pure photo props for monetary gain, even if the money is earmarked for the conservation of the species?


It is time for captive wildlife facilities offering hands-on cheetah interactions to go back to basics and rethink the means by which funds are raised for conservation projects, to allow these ambassadors to live as natural a life as possible in captivity, and to stop supporting the many captive cheetah breeding farms in South Africa.

Read original article here.

Featured image: Cheetah cubs, Kenya. Image credit: Kim Bartlett – Animal People, Inc.

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The Conservation Action Trust works for the protection of threatened species by promoting the objective investigation and reporting of important conservation and environmental issues affecting these species. Click to see author's profile.

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