Hi Reddit, I'm Vincent van der Merwe, a National Geographic Explorer focusing on cheetah conservation with the Endangered Wildlife Trust. I have been working in cheetah conservation for ten years now and have coordinated the capture and relocation of over 250 wild cheetahs between protected areas to prevent inbreeding. I have overseen the reintroduction of wild cheetahs into 20 protected areas, and currently co-ordinate the management of the only growing wild cheetah population worldwide. My research interests include the historical distribution of cheetahs, their genetic status and the global decline of wild cheetah populations since the advent of agriculture. My hobbies include hiking, playing squash, travelling in Africa and farming avocados. AMA!

You can read more about my work at the links below:

Tune in to Nat Geo Wild’s Big Cat Week Sept 7-11 and learn more about how Nat Geo is working to save big cats at https://on.natgeo.com/3maJHzx

Proof: https://i.redd.it/7il4m21g26m51.jpg

EDIT: Hey guys. I had plenty of fun answering your questions. I need to head out to prepare for a Cheetah capture tomorrow. Many thanks for joining our AMA session and to National Geographic for the support that they give to my work.

Have a super day :)

Cheers, Vincent

Comments: 212 • Responses: 25  • Date: 

ramblinjd317 karma

Were you excited about your relative Wikus Van Der Merwe making unique inroads with the inhabitants of District 9?

nationalgeographic219 karma

Hahaha, van der Merwe is one of the most common surnames in South Africa. We bear the brunt of many jokes.

Wish I could say that I was related to Wikus :)

Seltzerhead82 karma

My kids are wondering .. do cheetahs roar? And if so, what do they sound like?

nationalgeographic185 karma

Cheetahs are very silent animals. Because they are the weakest of the large predators in Africa, they cannot make to much noise as this will attract leopards, hyenas and lions. These three competing predators account for more than 50% of Cheetahs deaths.

For this reason Cheetahs make bird like chirps to communicate with each other. This enables then to evade detections by lions, leopards and hyenas.

If you get really close to them you can hear them purr :)

Here is a link to a Cheetah mum calling her cubs: https://www.dropbox.com/s/y5zmqqp4i3dbsx5/Cheetah%20Chirping.mp3?dl=0

mr_savior81 karma

How does one become 'explorer' like you? Thanks in advance for the answer

nationalgeographic164 karma

If you manage to complete a degree in conservation biology (or another interesting field) and then find work on an interesting species that needs conservation attention then you can apply for funding from National Geographic. If your project ideas are approved by National Geographic then you are automatically a National Geographic explorer.

It's wonderful thing to be, and opens many doors for you in life.

nationalgeographic66 karma

Hey guys. I had plenty of fun answering your questions. I need to head out to prepare for a Cheetah capture tomorrow. Many thanks for joining our AMA session and to National Geographic for the support that they give to my work.

Have a super day :)



Chtorrr61 karma

What would you most like to tell us that no one ever asks about?

nationalgeographic149 karma

Cheetahs have a homing instinct, almost like an inbuilt GPS. I have relocated many Cheetahs between reserves to prevent inbreeding or to prevent them from killing farmers sheep or goats. Unless we put them into a boma, a small fenced enclosure, for six weeks they always just simply walk back to where they came from. We don't know how they do it. Once, we relocated a Cheetah over 600 km or 372 miles. Six months later he was back where we originally caught him. He just walked back, through the mountains and all :)

Many people think that Cheetahs are a species that inhabit wide open grassland plains. In actual fact we mostly find them in dense bush here in South Africa.

rabbitearz9353 karma

What's the most surprising or unexpected thing you've learned throughout your cheetah research?

nationalgeographic144 karma

Cheetahs are unrelated to other cats in Africa. Their closest living relative in the Puma or Cougar from the Americas :)

They are are also extremely tolerant of a wide variety of temperatures. We reintroduced Cheetahs into Malawi where temperature can reach up to 113 Fahrenheit or 45 degrees Celsius. We also introduced them into a protected area in the coldest part of South Africa. This winter it snowed there and the Cheetah were completely unphased :)

Here is a link to one of our wild Cheetahs in snow: https://www.dropbox.com/s/iez5k8doqf6kazv/VID_20200829_180125.mp4?dl=0

N8teface53 karma

Hi Vincent! How long do cheetahs typically live in the wild? And how many litters are they generally able to rear during their lifetime? Thank you for your excellent conservation work.

nationalgeographic103 karma

Thank you :)

It's really tough to be a Cheetah in the wild. More than 50% of cubs never reach puberty because they get killed by competing predators, especially lions, leopard and hyenas.

Regardless, they are able to live up to 7 or 8 years in the wild. The oldest wild Cheetah that I came across was 12 years old. In captivity the can live up the 18 years of age.

Females can raise up to 5 litters to independence in their lives, but they normally only manage one or two. Many brave moms get killed defending their cubs.

Dutch_Midget37 karma

I heard cheetahs are very nervous animals, why is that?

nationalgeographic70 karma

They are the weakest of all the large cats. Lions, leopard and hyenas are constantly out to get them. For this reason they are very weary of their surroundings. They are easily spooked. The slightest bird call made in close vicinity to Cheetahs can send them running.

Refer to this Cheetah - Lion interaction for reference: https://www.dropbox.com/s/resj3evv1uxyd7t/Rietspruit%20September%202019.mp4?dl=0

JessicaLivi33 karma

How has cheetah conservation been impacted by the pandemic?

nationalgeographic54 karma

Ecotourism is an essential component for wildlife conservation. The unfortunate reality is that many African governments are only willing to conserve wildlife if it serves as a source of revenue. Covid has been disastrous from this perspective. We have lost two protected areas in South Africa due to the lack of Tourism. They have removed their wildlife and reverted back to sheep farming.

jgdiaz8132 karma

What is the most amazing thing you’ve witnessed a cheetah do?!! (From my 7 year old daughter who dreams of being a veterinarian!!)

nationalgeographic67 karma

I witnessed two male Cheetah chase away a leopard once. It was incredible. Normally Cheetahs run a hundred miles when they see a leopard. Refer to this video of the event:


RvP02028 karma

Considering the fact that Asian Cheetah have pretty much been wiped out from majority of Asia do you think it's a good idea to reintroduce Asian Cheetah in those areas or do you think it'll actually hurt the ecosystem instead of helping it?

nationalgeographic60 karma

There are only approximately 40 Asiatic Cheetahs left. This is not a sufficiently large gene pool to ensure genetic health in the long term future. At some point we may have no choice but to use African Cheetah genetics to supplement the remaining Asiatic population in Iran.

African and Asiatic Cheetahs split approximately 100 years ago. There are only small differences between the two subspecies. The extinction of Asiatic Cheetahs implies that there is a vacant ecological niche within the historic range of Asiatic Cheetahs. This niche can comfortably be occupied by reintroducing African Cheetahs. This is a decision to be made by Asian conservationists.

johnmalkovitch262523 karma

How big a problem is poachers in regards to cheetahs? Could you enlighten me a little bit on the subject, thank you sir.

nationalgeographic58 karma

We have lost 14 Cheetahs to poachers in South Africa and Malawi over the past 10 years. These poachers actually put out their snares for antelope, in order to obtain bush meat. The Cheetahs walked into these snares despite not being directly targeted.

A bigger problem for Cheetahs is conflict with farmers. It is very difficult for Cheetahs to co-exist with sheep and goat farmers. Sheep and goats just present such an easy target. Cheetahs are actively killed by farmers in what we call retaliatory killings.

Because Cheetahs do not present much of a threat to humans, their skins are not desired as much as leopard skins are.

Gracchia21 karma

Hey, Vincent, love your work, receive my most heartfelt congratulations, I dream of doing the same to Brazil's jaguars.

How did you get started and what are your best big cat conservation tips?

nationalgeographic15 karma

Hey :) Get your MSc degree and find a cool project working on a big cat that requires conservation attention. The hard work involved will open doors for you :)

Momb0t19 karma

Hi Vincent, very cool to learn about all the cheetah facts in this IAmA. How did you get into cheetah conservation? And how much protection does the government accord to the cheetahs in Africa?

nationalgeographic42 karma

Interestingly about 60% of remaining wild Cheetahs survive in barren landscapes outside of protected areas. This is especially the case for African countries with small human populations such as Namibia and Botswana.

Regardless, many governments in Africa do assist Cheetahs by reserves certain protected areas for Cheetah conservation. In African, government will typically reserves 10% of their countries land surface area for conservation.

I got into Cheetah conservation because I studied genetics. Because African governments are only willing to make 10% of their land available for conservation, remaining Cheetah populations are isolated and fragmented. For this reason inbreeding becomes a problem. As a geneticist, I understand the problem with inbreeding. My job is therefore to ensure healthy genetics by selecting and moving Cheetahs between reserves to prevent inbreeding.

soniakaponia18 karma

Hi Vincent, your work sounds so interesting and very important! I notice that one of the headlines of today is on the rapid decline of our wildlife Wildlife in catastrophic decline- BBC

What needs to be done to keep the cheetah pop growing? If we don’t intervene, how much longer will they last?

How do you feel about this article? What can we do to help prevent this?

nationalgeographic42 karma

Many thanks for your question. I did see that article.

The most substantial wildlife declines are being recorded in third world countries where human populations are growing exponentially. The unfortunate reality is that humans will only start caring about the environment once they have been lifted out of poverty. This means that we require more development to achieve this goal. I am not an expert at this but I believe that education and protecting women's rights play an important role in defeating poverty and preventing exponential human population growth.

Cheetahs will always be safe in protected areas, the declines are largely being recorded outside of protected areas. If we want to guarantee Cheetahs a long term future in African then we need to support ecotourism efforts on then continent. As bad as it sounds, the unfortunate reality is that 'if it pays it stays'. Going on a safari in Africa goes a long way to ensuring that the last remaining wild spaces in Africa remain wild.

CountDraco144512 karma

What are some unknown things about cheetahs?

nationalgeographic26 karma

Cheetahs did not evolve in Africa. They evolved in Eurasia where they split from their closest living relative, the Puma or Cougar.

They are thought to be a species that prefers the wide open plains of Africa, but they are equally comfortable in dense thicket vegetation where they adapt their hunting strategy to ambushes rather than long chases.

ShoeBang11 karma

In an open air arena, say, the roman colosseum, who would you opine would win in a fight to the death.....

Cheetah or Golden Eagle. My money is on the eagle but I can see how the cheetah could use his speed and agility to avoid the talons and get ahold of it as it comes down for an attack.

Your thoughts?

nationalgeographic23 karma

Haha, a Cheetah weights up to 60 kg, so it is certainly bigger and more powerful than an eagle. Eagles and vultures have been known to kills Cheetah cubs though.

NDaveT10 karma

Do you have any recommendations (books, videos, etc.) for a 13-year-old who's really into cheetahs and cheetah conservation? She already has a National Geographic subscription and the 2020 big cats calendar.

nationalgeographic20 karma

Come and visit some of our reserves here in South Africa and I'l ensure that your 13 year old gets to track a wild Cheetah in the wild. Tracking experiences can be arranged through these reserves: Mountain Zebra National Park, Rogge Cloof, Roam Game Reserve etc.

The Nat Geo and Panthera websites often have exciting Cheetahs updates, like this one that was released today: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2020/09/cheetahs-snow-south-africa/

Amateur_Kitchen7 karma

What was your journey into the animal sciences and working with National Geographic? I’m a young student wanting to go into biology, and I’m pressured to choose medicine, but I want to weigh my other options. Thank you!

nationalgeographic30 karma

You will have to be content with a meagre salary if you go into conservation. Regardless, you will see wonderful places and meet wonderful people. I sleep well at night knowing that I'm contributing positively to the long term conservation of an endangered species.

I studied a BSc degree in Entomology before working as a safari guide. I then did an Honours degree in Conservation genetics. I then worked as an environmental consultant and a high school biology teacher. I then did an MSc in Conservation Biology before applying for this Cheetah position. It was a long journey but I have no regrets.

Cheetah conservation is my purpose in life. I travel considerably and have made peace with the fact that I will probably not be able to marry and have a family once day.

Good luck with your decision and your career :)

YupDog916 karma

Any scary moments you would like to share in the jungle? And any cool stories that you would like to share?

nationalgeographic15 karma

I have worked with wild Cheetahs for ten years and I got my first Cheetah scar last month. The Cheetahs tracking collar got stuck in its mouth and we had to literally catch it with our hands and a blanket in order to put the collar off. It worked well, the Cheetahs is doing well but I did come off with a small scratch on my arm :)

Corleone_Vito5 karma

Are world leaders serious about protecting wildlife as much as you do? If not only effort from people like yourselves will make a big impact? Thank you for your contribution.

nationalgeographic6 karma

We have a long way to go but I think that we are starting to see an improved level of environmental consciousness in the world today, amongst our leaders too. Governments are still largely concerned with eternal goals of economic growth, but this is not a bad thing. We know that humans only start to care about the environment when they escape poverty and enter the middle class. We are making small conservation wins here and there. The slow down in the human population growth has been a hugely positive development for the environment.

I believe that we will eventually reach a point in the next 100 years where human populations growth actually starts to decrease. We just need to get as much biodiversity through the next 500 years and I am confident that we'll see earth return to a much healthier level of ecosystem functioning.

psly4mnegrl5 karma

Hi Vincent, thanks for doing this AMA.

Has there been any progress in strengthening the genetic diversity in the wild cheetah population, and is there any possible way to make that more diverse in the future?

nationalgeographic7 karma

Absolutely, this is part of my work. We implement human mediated gene flow between isolated populations to prevent inbreeding. It is no longer possible for Cheetah to move across the landscape, because it has been transformed by human activities.

_ruoya_3 karma

Is the akagera national park habitable to cheetahs?And if so will they be added there in the near future cause it is my understanding most of the big cats went extinct there or something ?

nationalgeographic9 karma

We will reintroduce Cheetahs into Akagera within the next five years. Really looking forward to it :) African Parks have done some great work there.

See you in Rwanda.

TheAdySK2 karma

not really related to your job, but do you think the extinction of species in the wild is really only caused by the human race? dont you think the global warming (which i am not disagreeing with) is just caused by the human race? and how much do you think species just like cheetahs will outlive since the wild life is getting slowly literally destroyed by people?

oh and by the way, thank you for being a good person and helping out just like this

nationalgeographic7 karma

Many thanks. The typically evolutionary lifespan for any mammal species is about 1.1 millions years before it either goes extinct or evolves into something else. Extinction is inevitable for all species but humans are certainly speeding the process up, causing many species to go extinct much earlier than they should.

LadyFerretQueen2 karma

I just have to say, what you do is a dream job, you guys are my heroes!

What I'm curious about is, how tame are cheetas? I saw videos in documentaries where they come very close to people and the experienced people didn't seem very scared. Are they ever dangerous to people if you don't provoke them?

nationalgeographic11 karma

Many thanks. Unlike other large cats, Cheetahs present no threat to adult human beings. Even in wild environments they are extremely trusting of humans. This is why they are desired as pet animals.