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Vet Med Specialists Join Conservation Team to Help Endangered Cheetahs

September 1, 2006

The wild cheetah is in big trouble, but a worldwide consortium of veterinarians and other experts is trying to save them through a breeding program that includes harvesting the eggs of "genetically important" cheetahs, hoping to implant them into younger surrogates.

In July, Dr. Autumn Davidson and Tomas Baker, both of the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, made a trip to the African country of Namibia, home of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, to help improve the reproduction rates of existing cheetahs throughout the world. Davidson is a veterinary internist interested in reproductive problems of animals. Baker provided ultrasound expertise. Both are part of a veterinary team assembled by the Smithsonian Institution.

Davidson explains that breeding is problematic with cheetahs. Their gene pool is small due to a historical event that reduced the population drastically. Today's cheetahs are closely related. Such close family ties may result in shared health problems and vulnerability to disease events that might affect a large segment of the population.

Today, there are fewer than 12,500 of these endangered cats remaining in Africa and Asia. The largest wild population of cheetahs is found in Namibia, home of the Cheetah Conservation Fund.

The Smithsonian Institution is developing techniques of assisted reproduction that they hope will improve the reproductive success of captive cheetahs. The goal is to improve the fertility of female cheetahs and increase the species' genetic variation.

The veterinary team examined animals to determine the most likely time of ovulation. Davidson used a flexible instrument called an endoscope to view the cervix. Baker operated the ultrasound equipment and monitor used to view the internal structures and confirm imminent ovulation. Eggs were extracted using a procedure called a laparoscopy. At the same time, ultrasound studies provided a way to review and assess uterine health. The eggs, Davidson reports, successfully developed into embryos in the laboratory.

Davidson tried several types of endoscope to determine a size appropriate to the cheetahs' anatomy. With more information about the size and location of the cervix, experts may be able to implant embryos without surgery.