Genetic insights for better conservation
04/05/2015 // Feature // Sara Sharpe // Photography: flowcomm, CCF, Peter Kluge
Latest molecular technologies help the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia to protect the endangered big cat species through generating insights into its population-structure, census, relatedness, and assignment of individual genetic identification.

Out in the bush of Namibia, Africa, 44km from the nearest town, is a unique laboratory. Equipped with cutting edge technology, powered by generators and staffed by a team of dedicated specialist international and local scientists, The Life Technologies Conservation Genetics Laboratory was set up in 2009 by the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF). Its aim is to contribute to on-going research and conservation of cheetahs.

Namibia has the world’s largest population of cheetahs (approximately 3,500 individuals). Once found throughout Asia and Africa, scattered populations are now only found in Iran (approx. 60 individuals) and sub-Saharan Africa (approximately 12,400 remain in the wild across 25 countries). The cheetah is a vulnerable species, included on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) list of vulnerable species, the US Endangered Species Act and CITES. It is the fastest land mammal and the smallest of the big cats. Cheetah cubs in protected areas in particular have a high mortality rate due to predation by other carnivores; such as lions and hyenas, and the species’ unusually low genetic variability may also impede its ability to adapt to changes in the environment. Cheetahs hunt in open or semi-open savannah, but with droughts and certain livestock farming practices, bush species are encroaching Namibian farmlands and pose a major livelihood threat to communities, the cheetah and other indigenous wildlife species.  

The CCF aims to protect the cheetah and ensure its future, acting as an expert global resource. Founded in 2009 by Dr. Laurie Marker, Executive Director, the organization has developed a multi-faceted approach and works with all stakeholders within the cheetah's ecosystem to develop best practices in research, education and ecology and create a sustainable model, from which all other species, including people, will benefit. An important part of this is CCF’s wide-ranging scientific research into many different aspects of cheetahs – from health assessments, ecological research on predators and ecosystem, human wildlife conflict and resolution to genetic research. The laboratories are a central and vital resource in advancing the CCF’s knowledge and for providing opportunities for Namibian and international scientists specialized in this field.


Peter Kluge
"By supporting the CCF and other wildlife conservation projects, QIAGEN demonstrates not only the immense value of its Sample to Insight solutions in diverse areas of life sciences, but also that its commitment to Making Improvements in Life Possible is all-encompassing and deeply embedded within our own ‘DNA’."
Peter Kluge, Market Development Manager Personalized Healthcare Europe
Striving to advance knowledge and save lives

Through the personal interest of Peter Kluge, QIAGEN’s Market Development Manager Personalized Healthcare Europe, in big cat conservation, QIAGEN was alerted to the work of the CCF. Impressed by the multifaceted approach, QIAGEN is supporting its research with a donation of QIAGEN Multiplex PCR kits. The project is QIAGEN’s latest contribution in support of various wildlife conservation projects around the globe.

“I first came across CCF when my wife and I visited Namibia for a holiday in 2005. As a cat and big cat enthusiast, I was inspired by CCF’s ongoing research and their holistic approach to conservation that brings benefits for wildlife and people. It resonated with our own efforts at QIAGEN to continually strive to advance our knowledge and expertise to save lives,” said Peter. “I developed contact with the CCF team and explored the possibility of support from QIAGEN. I was delighted that my colleagues agreed. By supporting the CCF and other worthy wildlife conservation projects, QIAGEN demonstrates not only the immense value of its Sample to Insight solutions in diverse areas of life sciences, but also that its commitment to Making Improvements in Life Possible is all-encompassing and deeply embedded within our own ‘DNA’.”


"The QIAGEN Multiplex PCR kits make a big difference in what we are able to achieve in the laboratory. And we are very grateful to QIAGEN for enabling us to explore this line of investigation.”
Dr. Anne Schmidt-Küntzel, Cheetah Conservation Fund

Dr Anne Schmidt-Kuentzel set up the laboratory and steers the scientific program of the CCF. A qualified veterinarian, Anne became intrigued with cats, big cats and the cheetah in particular, after she studied feline genetics for her subsequent Ph.D. She joined CCF as Research Geneticist and Laboratory Manager in 2008 and became CCF’s Assistant Director for Animal Health and Research in 2010.

CCF’s ongoing genetic research explores cheetah population-structure, census, relatedness, and assignment of individual genetic identification through non-invasive samples.

Qiagen3[1]

“We have used QIAGEN kits in our research since our laboratory first became operational, in 2008. They are high quality, reliable and feature state-of-the-art technology,” said Schmidt-Kuentzel. “We rely on non-invasive research techniques such as scat-, or fecal material-, analysis. However, in cheetah scat it is extremely difficult to assess the quality of DNA within the scat, because there are a wide variety of DNA such as host-, prey- and parasite- DNA, making it difficult to quantify the cheetah’s DNA. In this research, we have achieved better success with PCR reactions. I trialed the QIAGEN Multiplex PCR kit in the US and found that it was superior to any other tests known to me and amplified the markers 10-20 times better.  However, this reagent was beyond our means. QIAGEN generously stepped in with a donation of the kits. The QIAGEN Multiplex PCR kits make a big difference in what we are able to achieve in the laboratory. And we are very grateful to QIAGEN for enabling us to explore this line of investigation.”

Non-invasive techniques

Scat analysis enables CCF to assign a genetic ID to individual cheetahs, and to then combine genotyping of the DNA obtained from scat samples with photographs obtained from CCF’s camera trap study to assign a matching visual ID to the individual. Population studies of the cheetahs on CCF property can be carried out using non-invasive techniques. The scat samples are collected with the help of scat dogs, specially trained by the CCF. Other scat analysis techniques enable CCF to assess parasite levels and diet of the cheetahs through microscopic analysis of parasite eggs and hair; and we determine stress and reproductive status through assessing hormone levels.

Alongside these studies, the CCF also cares for around 50 resident, non-releasable cheetahs and examines animals captured by farmers. Continuous health research provides the basis of a disease surveillance system for cheetahs. Catastrophic disease is a major threat to the long-term viability of cheetah populations worldwide. Semen samples are systematically collected from male cheetahs and contribute to a Genome Resource Bank - a warehouse of biological materials including sperm, blood products, skin and other biological tissues that enables the transfer of genes to female animals worldwide without removing male animals from their natural habitat. In this way, technologies such as artificial insemination (AI) can be used to create new individuals by incorporating genes from males living in Africa. Where possible, cheetahs are marked with ear tags or radio/satellite collars and released on the same location with the farmer's permission, or at other suitable locations. Most healthy wild cheetahs can be released into the wild, due to CCF’s successful farmer outreach programmes. CCF also runs a global education program and collaborates extensively with other international scientific experts on cheetah conservation.

Providing the best science possible

“It is crucial to base our conservation efforts on the best science possible,” remarked Dr. Schmidt-Kuentzel. “Advanced molecular tests are essential in conservation. By increasing technologies and our knowledge in genetics in particular, we can make significant progress in understanding the cheetah’s needs towards stabilizing and even growing cheetah numbers. This is made possible by companies like QIAGEN.”


To learn more about the Cheetah Conservation Fund and how to support their work, please visit the CCF website.

Related Articles