AL AIN // Cheetahs kept by private collectors could help efforts to save the species from extinction, according to a leading conservationist.
Several wildlife centres in the UAE already participate in international captive breeding programmes. However, Dr Laurie Marker, one of the world's top experts on cheetahs, says individuals with one or two animals also have a part to play.
Dr Marker, who lives in Namibia, is the founder and executive director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, which operates a number of initiatives to protect the animals.
She is the keeper of the international cheetah stud book that is used to plan captive breeding programmes. Animals from different collections around the world are brought together to mate, according to a schedule designed to maximise the genetic viability of the total captive population.
"We've helped the world to develop a cooperative programme to manage the animals properly, to care for them properly and communicate about their animals," said Dr Marker. "This is what I'd like to see here."
Big cats are in demand from collectors and exotic pet owners in the UAE. A recent study by the Ministry of the Interior's 999 Magazine found that cheetahs were popular and were readily available to buy. The species is classified as threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Dr Marker urged private owners to register their animals with the breeding scheme or consider setting up breeding programmes here. It would also be possible for the cats' sperm to be banked.
Dr Anne Schmidt-Kuntzel, who works for the fund, said: "If the owner is not able to breed cheetahs because they are isolated or have just one animal, a veterinarian can collect the sperm and then bank it for the future so that the genetic diversity of the individual is available to future generations if needed.
"Some of these animals are very valuable genetically, especially ones removed from the wild."
Dr Marker, who has worked with cheetahs for 40 years, arrived in the UAE yesterday to deliver a series of talks for the Emirates Natural History Group.
"I'm here to talk about cheetah health, cheetah care and cheetah conservation," she said.
"Everyone here loves cheetahs, but I want to help them know more about why love needs to equal conservation."
She said she would like to see owners sharing information and learning more about the needs of their animals.
"It seems like here it's behind closed doors," Dr Marker said.
"I've been told that many people don't want anything to do with sharing, and yet it is so much better to share.
"I'm not sure if there's enough awareness of how rare the animals are in the wild. We need help to keep them in the wild and this is a pretty rich area to have people realise they can contribute to species survival. We want to open the doors on it in a positive way."
Some wildlife experts condemn the keeping of cheetahs and other wild animals by individuals and say it should not be allowed. However, captive breeding can help to protect wild populations by meeting the demand for animals.
"The amount of good breeding that's gone on is important," said Dr Marker. "There is a lot of illegal trade that's going on.
"Worldwide we're trying to keep wild cheetahs living in the wild."
Emirati vet Dr Majid Al Qassimi said there was growing awareness of the impact that the illegal trade in wild animals could have.
"There are new laws that are coming into play and enforcement along with them," he said. "The country is moving in the right direction. These things take time, but we see progress. It's all about awareness, it's all about education."