African Wildlife Databases Benefit Conservation Efforts

CHAMPAIGN, Illinois, October 1, 2001 (ENS) - The health and welfare of African lions, leopards and cheetahs are coming into focus - in Illinois. What is being learned of the Zoological Pathology Program at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine 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 Kinsel of the Zoological Pathology Program. "These concerns are very important for the international wildlife community."


Researchers in Illinois have gathered an unprecendented wealth of data on the biology and ecology of Africa's lions (Photo courtesy Tourism in Southern Africa)
Namibia sought help from Chicago's Brookfield Zoo and the University of Illinois 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.

Two years ago, the researchers reported that all of Africa's lions south of the equator are of the same sub-species, said Michael Briggs of the Chicago Zoological Society at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, Illinois.

"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 - including tissue, blood, serum, parasites and sperm - have been studied at the zoo and at the University of Illinois' 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 and cheetahs.


The scientists plan to apply their techniques to cheetahs next, like this mother and cub at De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre in South Africa (Photo courtesy De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre)
"A big question is what diseases affect leopards," said Kinsel, whose University of Illinois 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, the scientists 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," 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.


Comprehensive databases will also be created for the spotted hyena (Photo by Arden Skelton, courtesy South Africa National Parks)
Comprehensive databases of the spotted hyena, African dog and black backed jackal 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," Kinsel said.