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Scents, science employed to get cheetahs in the mood
SAN DIEGO (CNN) -- Cheetahs, the fastest land animals, are once again on the brink of extinction. They are dying off in the wild as well as in captivity, where they have considerable trouble breeding. One breeding program has gone to great lengths to improve the reproductive odds, including drugging and pampering females and using scent to entice males.
Scientists have known for years that cheetahs have been dying off in the wild. Captive populations are on the decline as well. In 1998 at least 40 cheetahs died in North American zoos alone, from old age and from an AIDS-like disease. Only 250 remain on the continent. Four cheetah cubs at the San Diego Wild Animal Park are a sign of hope for breeding programs, which came to a standstill in the mid-1990s to stop the spread of the cheetah disease. But the programs still face many challenges.
"A number of facilities have found that their females do not seem to be cycling anymore. So we are looking for alternate ways to stimulate that to happen," said Susan Millard-Davis, who works at the San Diego zoo. Hormone injections worked for a cheetah mother there.
"It's only been within the past couple of years that we've started using some hormone treatments as a way of helping them along. We do think it jumpstarted them."
An effort is also being made to recreate the cheetah's living conditions in the wild, including offering them more privacy.
The San Diego cheetah mom gave birth to her cubs at a special breeding center just for cheetahs, about a mile from the zoo, away from public view.
According to Millard-Davis, since females live alone in the wild, another key to breeding success is keeping males and females separated in captivity. Researchers must bring them together once a year during the ideal breeding period, which can range from one to four days.
Pinpointing those days is not easy. Biologists look for changes in behavior. A male cheetah might make a particular sound. A female might poke her head out of an enclosure.
"You notice the change in a day? Absolutely, you can see a huge change, especially in the male's behavior," Millard-Davis said.
Researchers in San Diego will let a male loose in a in a female's empty pen. Females excrete estrogen in their fecal matter. So by smelling that, the male know if she's in heat or coming into heat.
One male sprayed the pen, but not enough to indicate that the conditions are right. The female may not be ready to mate, or she may not be his type. Both male and females are choosy in selecting a mate.
One male, Mesigh, did mate, fathering cubs born to Bindura last August. The runt died shortly after birth, but the others are active and healthy.
Once the cubs reach about 2 years old, the females will be separated from the males, as they would be in the wild.
Cheetahs have been on the brink of extinction before and came back. But with so few remaining, inbreeding has weakened their immune systems, making them vulnerable to disease.
Whether cheetahs will again make a comeback remains unknown. In the wild they must survive disappearing habitat, poachers and disease. And in captivity, the challenge for conservationists is coaxing them to breed. Only 12,000 are left in the world.
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