Cheetah Conservation Fund responds to Covid-19 threat

By Dr. Laurie Marker

I want to take this opportunity to provide you with an update from the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) in response to the recent news about the tigers and lions from the Bronx Zoo. I had a talk yesterday with their lead veterinarian to get an update on their situation. The Bronx Zoo and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) are long-time CCF supporters and conservation partners. With the news and communications, CCF is taking extra precautions in our interactions with our resident cheetahs in Namibia and Somaliland.

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So far, we are very fortunate to have had no cases of Covid-19 at either of our facilities. The staff members who recently travelled abroad (including myself), self-quarantined for fourteen days upon our return to CCF’s facilities.

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Our centre in Namibia is uniquely isolated and largely self-sufficient, and the animal care staff live onsite. All non-essential staff is off-site until the nationwide lockdown is lifted, they have been at their homes with their families since the 16th of March. As of today April 9th, there have been 16 cases of Covid-19 in Namibia, and four reported cases in Somaliland. Our Cheetah Safe Houses in Somaliland are located within high-walled properties and our small staff is operating with limited contact to the outside world.

While the human-feline transmission of Covid-19 is new, coronavirus is not new to wild and domestic cats worldwide. Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) is a disease that is present in felines and is caused by a type of coronavirus. We have had FIP within our cheetah population in Somaliland, but this is a totally different coronavirus than that of Covid-19.

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Having more space for the cheetahs confiscated from the illegal pet trade will help protect their health by limiting the potential for this cat virus transmission between the cats in their previous smaller facilities, before the development of our new facility there last month.

As always, CCF staff stands ready to collaborate on infectious disease research and research on genetic disorders in big cats. CCF is home to a world class research facility that is unique in Africa.

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CCF’s Life Technologies Conservation Genetics Laboratory is the only fully equipped genetics lab in situ at a conservation facility in Africa. From this facility, CCF collaborates with scientists around the world and continues to work in collaboration with research partners in the zoological community.

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We look forward to contributing to new and ongoing research.

At CCF’s headquarters in Namibia, our educational programs have been paused, and our centre closed to visitors. We do not want to put the farming community, students, and tourists at any risk. We assure you that we are continuing our vital conservation work to secure a future for the cheetah and the communities who share its landscape:

We will keep our centres running with our core staff to provide care for the 39 resident orphaned cheetahs living at our centre in Namibia, as well as the 33 cheetahs confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade at our cheetah Safe Houses in Somaliland.

We will continue with our genetics research. CCF’s Genetics Laboratory is one the safest places to be right now, and we have many samples to process in our pursuit of a complete picture of the wild population of cheetahs across Africa;

We will develop new ways to deliver our lessons and educational outreach strategies to the students who we can longer visit and who can no longer visit with their school; we will continue to manage CCF’s livestock, livestock guarding dogs, creamery and gardens that will again serve as the training facilities for countless farmers and students each year, when we reopen for visitors.

We will continue farmer and community outreach providing services as needed to help reduce human-wildlife conflict.

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All of us at CCF want you to know how much we are thinking of you and your families – be they near or far – at this difficult and challenging time. We hope to see you again soon either here in Namibia or at an event during CCF’s 30th anniversary tour of the United States this fall. We are grateful for your continued support toward saving the cheetah and its ecosystem.

Dr. Laurie Marker is the founder and executive director of CCF