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Pre-Release Hunting Training And Post-Release Monitoring Are Key Components In The Rehabilitation Of Orphaned Large Felids

The International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council defines wildlife rehabilitation as ‘the process of providing aid to injured, orphaned, displaced, or distressed wild animals in such a way that they may survive when released to their native habitats’
(http://www.iwrc-online.org). Wildlife rehabilitation in Africa gained popularity in the 1960s after the release of orphaned lions (Panthera leo) in Kenya, followed by other orphaned large felids such as cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) and leopards (Panthera pardus) (Williams 2009). With an increasing frequency of news about rehabilitation programmes being established, one would expect large felid rehabilitation to have become a well established scientific field. A literature database search of peer-reviewed articles on carnivores, published in scientific journals between 1970 and 2010 (available from http://www.carnivoreconservation.
org), using the search string (rehab* or orphan*), resulted in only 23 hits. Of the eight articles actually dealing with rehabilitation, most (six) were on bears (reviewed by Clark 2009), while none were on large felids. The lack of scientific information raises concerns that spending scarce financial resources will not be cost effective for conservation organizations committed to the
rehabilitation and release of large felids. The apparent lack of scientific monitoring, evaluation and reporting in such release programmes (Gusset 2009) also raises concerns regarding the postrelease welfare of the orphaned animals involved.

While there is little scientific information on the rehabilitation and release of orphaned cheetahs or leopards, Pettifer (1981a) reports on the release of captive-bred cheetahs (also see Pettifer 1981b; Rowe-Rowe 1992; Hunter 1999; Marker et al. 2003; Hayward et al. 2007a,b; Marnewick et al. 2009). Conflict with humans was the biggest threat to their survival. The same appears to be true for translocated leopards (Hayward et al. 2007a,b,c; Weilenmann et al. 2010) and many other large carnivores (Hayward & Somers 2009). Rehabilitation thus needs to be carefully implemented with reference to behavioural development and human habituation before release, as these developments can affect behavioural responses later in life (Bekoff 1989). In release programmes, captivebred carnivores were found to have lower postrelease survival rates than wild-caught individuals
(Jule et al. 2008). This may be due to underdeveloped hunting skills (as a result of not having the opportunity to learn from experienced conspecifics) and habituation to humans before release (Bauer 2005).

The global status of the cheetah has declined from approximately 100 000 in 1900 to less than 15 000 in the 1990s (Marker 1998). Botswana holds the second largest population of cheetahs (Klein 2007) and is likely to be a stronghold for leopards too. Yet, as elsewhere, both species are threatened by human–carnivore conflicts (Schiess-Meier et al. 2007; Selebatso et al. 2008;
Gusset et al. 2009). This conflict occasionally causes incidents of orphaned cheetahs and leopards being confiscated by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP). With a successful rehabilitation programme, these animals could be used to re-establish cheetahs and leopards in areas where populations of the two species have declined or disappeared, as has been proposed for orphans of other species (McNutt et al. 2008).

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