Six Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute cheetah cubs
Six Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute cheetah cubs Credit: Adrienne Crosier/Smithsonian Conversation Biology Institute

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Barafu died a long way from his ancestral home. He lived an ocean away from the Namibian grasslands where, if he wasn’t needed as insurance, the cheetah would have roamed. Egyptian pharaohs once purported to have tamed cheetahs in their abundance. But now, in this age, cheetahs like Barafu and his offspring are precious reserves should their wild counterparts die out. 

He lived with his mate Amani in Front Royal, Virginia, at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, storied land near the mountains of the Shenandoah that in the early 1900s was used to breed and train horses and mules for the U.S. Cavalry. A horse cemetery on SCBI’s campus pays homage to that history. This is no zoo, but rather a science facility dedicated to finding out how to best study and save rare, troubled, and endangered species from the brink of extinction. 

Cheetahs qualify. “Everyone was unfortunately shocked by the population estimates that came out a couple years ago,” says SCBI’s cheetah biologist Adrienne Crosier. “We thought there were more cheetahs out there, and then when the estimates came back at only 7,500, it was a bit disheartening.” Fewer than 8,000 cheetahs are left in the wild. A little more than a century ago, 100,000 of them lived across Africa and in parts of Asia.

Amani and Barafu were known as SCBI’s resident grandparents, an institution unto themselves. She is now 12, and he died at 14 in April. They gave life to generations of cheetahs, and became elders within the 26-strong insurance population at the Biology Institute.

“They live together, which isn’t how they’d live in the wild,” said Crosier shortly before Barafu’s death. “But he loves having a friend, and they get along so great. They sleep together, they groom each other. For their last few years of life, they have each other and they love each other, and that’s worth it to me. I don’t care if that’s how they’d live in the wild. It’s made their quality of life better and that’s what’s important to me.”

On a freezing March morning the pair is, as usual, together. They’re resting in their grassy enclosure, and they seem relaxed compared to the curious younger cheetahs, like Carmelita, who rubs her rough fur against the enclosure barrier and leaps up to receive her favorite toy from Crosier: a durable black Kong. Amani and Barafu served well and retired from the breeding program. 

Crosier, 43, is the authority on all things cheetah at the facility, and serves as the coordinator for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Cheetah Species Survival Plan, making breeding recommendations for all cheetahs living in Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities in North America. The program houses about 2,000 cheetahs internationally. Out of the 57 facilities participating in the survival plan, eight of them breed cheetahs.

Crosier manages all the animals at SCBI’s 9-acre cheetah science facility, which opened in 2007, and her research is on cheetah reproductive biology, an essential area of study. The goal is to create a self-sustaining, genetically diverse population of cheetahs in human care. 

Right now, the world’s fastest land animal is also the fastest-dying and most endangered African cat. The cheetah is fading as quickly as it sprints, and becoming increasingly isolated in the wild. So SCBI is working hard to build a healthy population, despite the fact that they’re notoriously difficult to breed. Cheetah females don’t care to mate with just any old male, after all. They tend to be very selective.

Adrienne Crosier Credit: Mehgan Murphy/Smithsonian Conversation Biology Institute

Before coming to SCBI, Crosier worked with Dr. Laurie Marker on the frontlines of wild cheetah life in Namibia. Marker, 63, is the godmother of cheetah knowledge, having worked with the animals since 1974. She established the most successful cheetah breeding program in North America during her 16 years at Oregon’s Wildlife Safari. 

Marker is one of the scientists who helped to first discover the cheetah’s problematic lack of genetic variation. She did the research with collaborators in D.C. at the National Cancer Institute and the National Zoo, where she worked from ’88 to ’91.

“I used to always think that there was some big organization and that they might go out and save the cheetah,” Marker says. “Everybody thinks that there’s a ‘they,’ but there is no ‘they.’ The more I worked, I found that nobody was going to go out and save the cheetah. So, it became me who was going to go save the cheetah.”

In 1990, she founded the nonprofit Cheetah Conservation Fund, the primary goal of which is to help save the animal’s wild population through research, conservation, and education. She packed up and moved to Africa in 1991 and settled in Namibia, which still has a sizable cheetah population. The fund now has two main locations: the Research and Education Centre in Otjiwarongo, Namibia, and a U.S. home base in Alexandria, Virginia.

Marker still travels back and forth, but stays in Namibia most of the time to continue studying the cheetah’s natural ecosystem and how it lives. 

Cheetahs are a peculiar, fascinating, entrancing species. Their endless brown eyes have black tear marks that run from the inside corners down to the outside edges of their mouths, reflecting the glare of the sun as they hunt during the day. They don’t roar, but instead purr, bark, bleat, and hiss. They have foibles: Highly susceptible to disease due to a lack of genetic diversity, scientists must bleach the bottoms of their shoes before even entering their SCBI facility. 

They also reveal flashes of magic. A cheetah on the hunt is a majestic affair. As they give chase to prey—small antelope like springbok, Thomson’s gazelles—their strides cover ground in split seconds, hitting top speeds of up to 70 miles per hour, their muscular tails acting as rudders. Their free-floating breastplates allow them to turn their heads to unnerving degrees, making them flexible enough to fit through the tiniest openings. Claws that don’t fully retract grip the ground like football cleats, steadying them as they dash. They aren’t strong enough to overpower prey, as lions do, so they rely on chasing their dinner and then tripping it once they get close enough. 

Fifty percent of the time, cheetahs fail and go hungry. Sometimes, opportunistic larger cats like lions lurk and strike, forcing cheetahs to concede their hard-won meals. Cheetah cubs are prey themselves, and many don’t make it past their first year. These are natural factors in the species’ current predicament, but it’s poaching and habitat loss that are the biggest reasons for their sharp decline. 

Cheetahs aren’t listed as “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but instead as the less-severe “vulnerable,” much to the dismay of many scientists, including Crosier, who believe their status should be endangered.

“They hold a unique place in the ecosystem because of their size and because of their hunting strategy,” Crosier says. “They are sight hunters, they are speed hunters, so they fill that midsize cat role in the African ecosystem. They’re the only midsize cat, really. You’ve got leopards and lions, you’ve got a lot of small cats, but no other midsize cat.”

Their numbers are bleak, and so are the words scientists use to describe the dire nature of their situation. But it’s not too late for cheetahs, Crosier and Marker insist. They’ve both dedicated their lives to proving that.

Marker has made much progress in her endeavors in Africa. She’s set up farmer training programs in which she and her teams work with farmers who have cheetahs on their land. She wants to both protect the animals and help the farmers by keeping them from losing their livestock to hungry cheetahs and other predators.

“A lot of our work has been understanding how the cheetah lives, and then understanding how it lives within the system of people, and then understanding how people live, and making a plan so that they can all live together,” Marker says.

Crosier’s reproductive work has also yielded great results so far. Last spring, two large litters were born at SCBI, and 10 of the 12 cubs survived—a healthy number among litters that size. Through the past decade, 35 surviving cubs have been born at SCBI. Crosier also develops assisted reproductive techniques to help cheetahs breed. She uses artificial insemination in cases where two cheetahs are a good genetic match, but not a match personality-wise, and also in vitro fertilization. Because female cheetahs have a relatively short reproductive lifespan and usually don’t have cubs after they turn 8, she is working on techniques to possibly implant embryos from older females into younger females so the genes of older females who have not had much success breeding are not forever lost. 

Studying and freezing cheetah sperm is another part of Crosier’s research, so if the need to infuse a boost of genetic diversity into the population even hundreds of years from now arises, it will probably be possible. And most recently, she and her team made a breakthrough, developing a way to determine if female cheetahs are pregnant in their first month by testing for a protein in their feces. 

While it is still possible for these cats to recover in the wild, time is of the essence. “Their habitat is decreasing, the threats are not decreasing. Loss of habitat, loss of prey base, poaching, and other human-derived aspects are decreasing these population numbers,” says Crosier.

Reintroducing the insurance population into the wild is a possibility, but as of now, it’s a distant aspiration. “If we need to talk about sending cats back into Africa, we have the animals that we can do that with,” Crosier says.

This fall, they may have even more. At SCBI, a new facility called Cheetah Ridge is scheduled to open so that Amani and Barafu’s progeny, as well as the offspring of other cheetahs, can roam. It won’t compare to Namibian grasslands, the home of these spotted cats built for speed, but the Biology Institute hopes that for now, it’s enough.