Some animals are well suited to life as a pet. Take dogs for instance, whose domestication by our ancestors transformed them from fearsome predators into this. Cheetahs on the other hand, not so much, but knowing what to do with wild animals raised in captivity is tricky as without proper rewilding they won’t survive. While difficult, it’s evidently not impossible as The Aspinall Foundation has successfully returned two captive-born cheetah brothers to the wild, having completed the final stage of their rewilding as part of a project that was years in the making.
The brothers, Saba and Nairo, were born at Port Lympne Hotel & Reserve in Kent, England, on July 15, 2017. Saba unfortunately very quickly showed signs of illness and it was discovered that his liver wasn’t functioning properly. In order to keep him alive, he had to be removed from the litter and hand-raised by Damian and Victoria Aspinall of The Aspinall Foundation. Under their care, he was able to make a full recovery, but inevitably he had grown accustomed to playing with humans and being fed: dependencies that wouldn’t benefit a cheetah in the wild. Saba rejoined his brother Nairo in December 2018 and despite their time apart the pair immediately formed a bond.
With just 7,000 cheetahs in the wild, genetic diversity is a pressing issue for this species, and with this in mind, the Aspinall Foundation was determined to return these two young and now healthy males back to their wild roots. Then began a project that would see the two successfully rewilded and set free to hunt with the success of wild cheetahs despite their captive origin story.
The two left the UK on February 5, 2020, to go to the Ashia Cheetah Conservation in South Africa, where the first part of their rewilding would begin. Once they had found their footing, they were transferred to a hunting camp at Mount Camdeboo Private Reserve. Here, it was crucial that the animals began sourcing their own food and sure enough, the two secured their first kill, a young blesbok, in August 2020.
Supplemental food was slowly withdrawn from the pair, and as they gained more experience – some good, some bad (they probably didn’t love being chased away by sable bulls) – they needed the help of humans less and less. When the Aspinall Foundation’s monitoring team spotted the cheetahs taking down a large kudu, it became clear that they were finally ready and the two were set loose from the hunting camp on February 17, 2021, to live out their lives as wild cheetahs do.
“This is an incredible success for The Aspinall Foundation, Mount Camdeboo, and Ashia Cheetah Conservation,” said Damian Aspinall, Chairman of The Aspinall Foundation in a statement emailed to IFLScience. “Many doubted that this groundbreaking project was possible, but together we have definitively proven that captive-born cheetahs can be successfully rewilded. We are already working with other organisations to replicate this incredible project and rewild more cheetahs in Africa, bringing valuable new genetics to local populations and return these stunning cats to their ancestral homelands.”