MONTREAL — A pair of Quebec-born cheetahs are adapting to life under the African sun in preparation to be released in a rare, international "rewilding" project that conservationists hope will help ensure the future of the species.
Big cat brothers Kumbe and Jabari are settling in well after recently making the multi-day journey from Quebec's Parc Safari to the Imire wildlife sanctuary in Zimbabwe.
The siblings are spending 60 days in quarantine before they are released into a 4,500-hectare reserve, and are already starting to act like wild cheetahs — much to the joy of Nathalie Santerre, the zoological director at Parc Safari who helped raise them.
Santerre said within 24 hours of arrival, the cheetahs had already learned to find higher ground — a habit wild animals use to spot prey or danger — and had showed an interest in hunting.
"They're very in tune with every little noise, every little movement," Santerre said in a recent interview.
Kumbe and Jabari were born at Parc Safari in 2019 — conceived through a breeding partnership with the Toronto Zoo — and were chosen for the project based on their strength, size and genetics.
It's hoped they will eventually sire cubs of their own and help restore Zimbabwe's wild cheetah population, which has declined to fewer than 200 animals from around 1,500 in 1975.
Both Park Safari and Canada's Accredited Zoos and Aquariums say they believe Kumbe and Jabari are the first Canadian-bred cheetahs to be released in Africa.
Santerre said Kumbe and Jabari were carefully raised in order to give them the best chance of thriving in the wild. They were kept within sight of their potential prey and fed animal carcasses to teach them how to tear into food.
While cats have a natural, strong hunting instinct — as anyone who's seen a domestic pet stalk a mouse can attest — Kumbe and Jabari's skills and endurance were developed by training them with lures.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the cheetahs will learn to feed themselves successfully in the wild, Santerre said. But so far, she added, "the boys" are exceeding every expectation — chasing small animals that venture into their enclosure and eyeing the larger prey animals they can see from a distance.
"You can see they're keen to get out on those plains and just start running," Santerre said.
The cheetahs will be equipped with GPS collars and monitored by rangers for the first year so they can ensure the animals are eating and finding water.
"Rewilding" is the process of reintroducing animals to an area where their species used to roam in the hope of re-establishing that population, according to a senior conservation biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Federation.
Carolyn Callaghan says the cheetahs' journey from Quebec to Africa — the product of a partnership between Parc Safari, the Aspinall Foundation and Imire — is an example of the international effort that is increasingly needed to save vulnerable animals. The partnership also reflects the shifting role of zoos, she said, from displaying captive animals to helping repopulate endangered species.
In particular, she said zoo breeding programs play an important role in ensuring at-risk species maintain as much genetic diversity as possible to keep populations healthy.
"It remains one of (zoos') mandates to connect people with these captive wild animals, but it has grown beyond that to this conservation genetics role and re-establishing population," Callaghan said in a recent interview.
Species have also been successfully reintroduced in Canada, she said, including Vancouver Island marmots as well as bison and whooping cranes.
Callaghan notes, however, that captive breeding and reintroduction are an inferior solution to protecting animals and their habitats in the first place.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 13, 2021.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press