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Cheetah Conservation Efforts Promising

The cheetah, known for its blinding speed, is among the world's most endangered species. VOA's Carolyn Turner produced this report on the Cheetah Conservation Station, a program to save this threatened animal that is achieving promising results. It is narrated by VOA's Jim Bertel.

The cheetah is the fastest mammal in the world, achieving speeds of well over 100 kilometers an hour. But this swift, beautiful animal is on the verge of extinction.

At the beginning of the 20th century there were over 100,000 cheetahs in Asia and Africa. Today, only about 12,000 exist in the wild and the cheetah could be extinct by 2015 if the population continues to decline.

While some other animals pose a risk to cheetahs, its largest threat is man. Poaching and hunting have reduced the cheetah population drastically over the past 10 years. And suitable habitats are declining due to increasing human populations.

Further threatening cheetahs is centuries of inbreeding in the wild, leaving them susceptible to disease and reproductive problems.

The National Zoo in Washington, D.C. is taking steps to save the Cheetah. Through its Cheetah Conservation Station, scientists are having success in breeding cheetahs in captivity.

The zoo has enjoyed a baby boom over the past year with its first litter of four cheetah cubs born in November 2004. Five months later, a second litter of five cubs was born.

The zoo's success comes from studying cheetahs in the wild. Fertility expert Dr. Jo Gayle Howard says they discovered that while male cheetahs live in groups, the females are loners.

"So, going back to the wild, how do they live in the wild? They are not in pairs. The females are not together,” Dr. Howard told us. “We have found you have to separate them and move them around a lot and keep them interested but bring the male to the female just occasionally and that keeps everyone interested."

To further improve the odds, zoos are turning to a database that identifies suitable mates. A computerized dating service…

"We call it the computerized dating service. We have all the pedigree(s) in a computer of the cheetahs in the breeding program Cheetah C.S.P., or Cheetah Survival Plan. And so the computer just really dictates the most genetically valuable animal and that's usually the one that's not bred or reproduced in the population,” she said. “And so, we get a list and it is (a) prioritized list of the males and the females and so it's easy to match up, especially the top of the list those are our focus animals to get them represented in the population."

The efforts of Dr. Howard and others are slowly rebuilding the cheetah population. However, she believes it will take greater conservation efforts and steps by governments to ultimately determine the cheetah’s fate in the years to come.