Cats and crickets: Testing the naivety of reintroduced Cheetahs to predatory cues

By Erin Adams

As wildlife numbers decline, it is becoming an increasingly popular theory that it is viable to reintroduce once captive individuals back into the wild. However, reintroductions may fail as newly introduced animals could be naïve to the threats around them. As Cheetahs are listed as Vulnerable and have been extirpated from much of their original range, reintroductions have become an important exercise in Cheetah conservation. In a recent publication* co-authored by EWT scientists, the perception of threats was tested on reintroduced cheetah populations to gauge the effectiveness of reintroduction programmes on Cheetah’s survival.

As lions pose the biggest threat to Cheetahs in the wild, recordings of territorial lions were obtained. In addition to lion cues, recordings of African Bush Crickets were used as a control to test whether Cheetah could distinguish between danger (predation due to lions) and no danger (crickets). These recordings were then played to three different groups of Cheetahs. The three groups included a population that had been raised and kept in captivity; a semi-wild population that had been raised in captivity and was undergoing a “soft-release”, meaning that they were released into a reserve with prey species where they could hear and smell lions but not directly interact with them; and a population of fully wild Cheetahs that interact with both prey and other predators. It was predicted that the group of captive Cheetahs would be least sensitive to the lion recordings, as they have had no prior experience of other predators.

The results showed that the captive Cheetah population showed no fear of the lion or the bush cricket cues and spent more time near the stimulus than the other Cheetah groups. The semi-wild and wild populations consistently fled at the sound of the lion’s roar. The semi-wild Cheetah individuals approached the sound of the bush cricket (the control, or “no danger” sound), while the wild Cheetah individuals were indifferent to them.

The authors concluded that there is a great need for this pre-release testing as it could help assess the readiness of individual Cheetahs for release into the wild and the potential success of Cheetah rewilding. Assessing the Cheetahs’ response to potential threats before release could increase the rate of Cheetah survival in the wild, post-release. This study only looked at one aspect of the readiness of captive-bred Cheetah to be released into the wild – other issues such as fitness and the ability to hunt, amongst others, could also affect the readiness of Cheetahs for release into the wild, and thus their survival.

* Wemer, N., Naude, V. N., van der Merwe, V. C., Smit, M., de Lange, G., & Komdeur, J. (2021). Successful predatory‐avoidance behaviour to lion auditory cues during soft‐release from captivity in Cheetah. Ethology.