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WH0915 – Fossil Hominid Sites of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai, and Environs

Feb 132013

jts-0194I recently had the privilege of scratching the ears of a South African cheetah named Eddie. He was an elderly, placid, rather overweight animal who had lived his whole life around humans. If YouTube is anything to go by, he is a seasoned performer. His behaviour was eerily housecat-like, from his loud resonant purr to the affronted mew when the guide tickled his paw one time too many. It was easy to see him as a rather large housepet rather than a wild animal.

So can you actually tame a cheetah? Or was I irrationally putting my faith in his happy purring?[1]

Cats (or more properly felids) have been living with humans for many thousands of years. For example, almost 40% of felid species have been tamed on all continents, excluding Europe and Oceania, but only one species was domesticated (the Mesopotamian wildcat).[2]

It is important to appreciate the difference between taming and domestication, as this helps explain why there are no domesticated cheetahs today.

Taming is “conditioned behavioral modification of an individual; domestication is permanent genetic modification of a bred lineage that leads to, among other things, a heritable predisposition toward human association.” [3]

A domestic animal such as a pit bull need not be tame, while a hand-reared cheetah might be tame but still not domesticated, because its breeding is not human-controlled.

The cheetah as a species is fragile. Compared to a population of 100,000 in 1900, the known cheetah population worldwide now is approximately 7,500 adult animals. During the 20th century alone, cheetahs became extinct in India, Syria, Jordan, Sinai and most of the Arabian Peninsula. [7] The IUCN Red List classifies them as vulnerable. [4]

A major characteristic of the cheetah species is the lack of genetic variation, most likely due to a near-extinction event during the late Pleistocene when all but a handful of cheetahs went extinct. Modern cheetahs show an extremely high frequency of spermatozoal abnormalities, and infant mortality is high.[5] As a result, reproductive rates are low both in the wild and in captivity. Though captive breeding programs have experienced some success, the captive cheetah population still depends on intake from the wild to grow. [6]

One of the critical factors in succesful domestication is the ability to sustain a captive breeding population. As Jared Diamond observes:

“Obviously we can’t domesticate a mammal that refuses to breed in captivity…Cheetahs! The fastest of hunting animals. If you could have a hunting cheetah, you would much rather go hunting with your pet cheetah than your pet dog. But cheetahs could not be bred in captivity until zoos with great difficulty achieved it a couple of decades ago.”[8]

But while the cheetah could not be domesticated, it still had a long association with humans. Recent evidence suggests that taming took place as long as 10,000 years ago, in the Fertile Crescent. [9] Were it not for the difficulty of breeding them in captivity, they might be as common as hunting dogs today.

Cheetahs were kept as hunting animals by the ancient Egyptians, the Assyrians and the Indian Moghuls. [10] Ancient Egyptian and Indian practices depended on the live capture of adult cheetahs, who were then trained to hunt alongside human hunters. As the wild population of cheetahs declined, so did the practice of hunting with them. However people in India still hunted with cheetahs as late as 1939. [11]

So was I right to trust Eddie? He may not have been domesticated, but he was certainly tame…

  1. Robert Eklund, Gustav Peters & Elizabeth D. Duthie – An acoustic analysis of purring in the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) and in the domestic cat (Felis catus), Proceedings, FONETIK 2010, Dept. of Phonetics, Centre for Languages and Literature, Lund University  ↩
  2. Faure, Eric; Kitchener, Andrew C. – An Archaeological and Historical Review of the Relationships between Felids and People, Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, Volume 22, Number 3, September 2009 , pp. 221–238(18).  ↩
  3. Carlos A. Driscoll, David W. Macdonald, and Stephen J. O’Brien –
    Colloquium Papers: From wild animals to domestic pets, an evolutionary view of domestication, PNAS 2009 106 (Supplement 1) 9971–9978; published ahead of print June 15, 2009, doi:10.1073/pnas.090158610.  ↩
  4. See http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/219/0  ↩
  5. Eklund et al, 18.  ↩
  6. See the International Cheetah Studbook.  ↩
  7. Saleh MA, Helmy I, Giegengack R. 2001. The cheetah, (Acinonyx jubatus, Schreber 1776) in Egypt (Felidae, Acinonychinae). Mammalia 65(2):177–94.  ↩
  8. Diamond, James M. – The Haskins Lectureship on Science Policy. Why Did Human History Unfold Differently on Different Continents for the Last 13,000 Years?, 2001.  ↩
  9. Eklund et al, 17.  ↩
  10. Clutton-Brock, Juliet -A Natural History of Domesticated Mammals,
    Cambridge University Press, 1999 – Science – 238 pages, 199  ↩
  11. People hunting with cheetahs, India 1939  ↩