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Genetic management of the metapopulation

Past Cheetah relocations between metapopulation reserves took place with little consideration of the genetic origin of the Cheetah being moved. Since the inception of the Cheetah Metapopulation Project, decisions on suitable destination reserves have been made using reserve studbook information. More than half of reserves do not retain reliable studbooks and studbook information is often lost as reserve management regimes change. Fortunately most Cheetah reintroductions onto small fenced reserves took place relatively recently (69% in the past 15 years). It is well known where founder populations were sourced from and this information has been utilised to guide the relocations between Metapopulation reserves.

Since the inception of the Cheetah Metapopulation Project in June 2011 biological sampling kits have been circulated to all Metapopulation reserves. The goal was to obtain biological samples from 25% of adult metapopulation Cheetah before initiating the genetic analyses. This was achieved in July 2014 and the analyses was initiated the same month. Results from this analyses will provide reliable information on relatedness between metapopulation Cheetah and will be utilised to guide future relocations between reserves. Once this information is available Cheetah movements between reserves will be carried out in such a manner that genetic diversity and genetic fitness in the metapopulation is maximised. Genetic targets will also be set to ensure that an adequate level of heterozygosity is maintained in the metapopulation.

The is a belief amongst reserve managers that the effects of inbreeding in Cheetah are only observed following three to four generations of inbreeding. For these reasons reserve managers often tolerate one or two generations of parent-offspring or sibling-sibling matings. These opinions are of concern as they do not take greater conservation goals into consideration. Lehmkuhl (1984) and Thomas (1990) estimate the average minimum viable population size (MVP) to ensure between 90 and 95 percent probability of survival between 100 to 1 000 years into the future at 500 to 1 000 individuals for terrestrial vertebrates. In July 2014 the Metapopulation was comprised of 318 Cheetah, well short of these numbers. The long term viability of the Metapopulation is reliant on good genetic management and any form of inbreeding should be avoided at all costs. 
Related male and female Cheetah should not be utilised for reintroduction onto the same reserve. Brother-sister, parent-sibling and cousin-cousin matings are strongly discouraged. The effects of inbreeding in felines are well known and include:

  • An elevated incidence of recessive genetic diseases
  • Lower birth weight
  • Slower growth rate
  • Smaller adult size
  • Loss of immune system functioning
  • Reduced fertility in both litter size and in sperm viability
  • Higher neonatal mortality
  • Fluctuating asymmetry
  • Increased congenital defects such as tail kinks and heart defects

Outbreeding and the possibility of outbreeding depression should also be avoided. Under no circumstances should Cheetah from outside the southern Africa sub region be utilised for reintroduction into South African reserves. Recent phylogeographic research on 94 Cheetah samples obtained across the global distribution of Acinonyx jubatus revealed deep phylogeographic breaks between the investigated populations (Charruau et al. 2011). Conservation strategies should respect independent evolutionary histories of the three recognised subspecies of Cheetah. This approach will facilitate the dual conservation priorities of maintaining locally adapted ecotypes and genetic diversity (Charrau et al. 2011).