CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The health and welfare of African lions, leopards and cheetahs are coming into focus – in Illinois. What is being learned, researchers say, will help with the management of the threatened big cats in Africa, as well as those in zoos throughout the world.
“The government of Namibia has genuine concerns about how to best manage its animals,” said scientist Michael J. Kinsel of the Zoological Pathology Program at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. “These concerns are very important for the international wildlife community.”
Namibia sought help from Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo and the UI in 1994. A collaborative program, which primarily focuses on the 8,600-square-mile Etosha National Park, has led to an unprecedented database of demographics, habitats, diseases, genetics and reproductive issues related to the lion (Panthera leo).
Two years ago, the researchers reported that all of Africa’s lions south of the equator are of the same sub-species, said Michael B. Briggs of the Chicago Zoological Society at the Brookfield Zoo. “We found regional differences, displayed in their adaptation to their environment, but it was clear from a genetic standpoint that it wouldn’t hurt to move animals from one place to another,” he said. Various samples (tissue, blood, serum, parasites, sperm, etc.) have been studied at the zoo and at the UI Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Urbana. The samples are archived at the zoo.
Now Kinsel and Briggs are working with the Namibian Carnivore Monitoring Program, a collection of government and non-government agencies and interested individuals, to obtain the same information for leopards (Panthera pardus) and cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus).
“A big question is what diseases affect leopards,” said Kinsel, whose UI office is at Loyola University near the zoo. “If you search the literature, you will come up with very little. Nor do we know much about the genetics of leopards. They are secretive animals. Namibia doesn’t know how many animals there are in the country, but there are populations that have been tracked for two years.”
Applying their approach to cheetahs is important, they said. Namibia is home to 70 percent of the world’s cheetah population. “If we lose Namibia’s population, we will have essentially lost the cheetah, because populations elsewhere are smaller and isolated,” Kinsel said.
Comprehensive databases of the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), African dog (Lycaon pictus) and black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelus) in their natural environments will also be created.
“If we can see the differences between free-ranging and captive animals, we can enhance management in both habitats,” said Kinsel, who travels with Briggs to Namibia a couple of times a year for fieldwork and to train local workers to collect samples and perform necropsies.
Jean Dubach, a geneticist with the Chicago Zoological Society, and Robert Murnane of the UI Zoological Pathology Program also are primary members of their team.
Materials provided by University Of Illinois At Urbana-Champaign. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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