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The ‘cheetah matchmaker’ preventing extinction

Words by Smiley Team

One man’s mission to save cheetahs from extinction has led to the only population in the world that is now growing instead of decreasing.

South African Biologist Vincent van der Merwe has the unusual job of matchmaking cheetahs across South Africa to try and build back a species that has shrunk by 91%.

Cheetahs have suffered a huge loss of habitat across Africa and are endangered by hunters and poachers, as well as their own genetics, as interbreeding can create problems.

“Long gone are the wide open spaces for wildlife to roam freely in Africa. All that we are left with are small fragments of natural habitat that support reduced wildlife populations," Vincent explains. 

“My job is to relocate cheetahs between these remaining fragments of natural habitat to prevent inbreeding, cheetah overpopulation or local extinction.”

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A typical reserve that Vincent visits is the size of the greater London area, and contains just 10 cheetahs.

Fences and barriers between reserves all across South Africa mean that cheetahs often can’t reach each other, and end up forced to interbreed. Vincent has to physically move the cheetahs across reserves to try and marry them up with one another, to encourage breeding between healthy males and females.

His work, which he has been doing now since 2011, has overseen the growth of the metapopulation from 217 cheetahs on 41 reserves to 486 individuals on 67 reserves.

Vincent typically does about four to six relocations every two weeks, and mostly the matches prove to be a success story.

“My favourite story was a time when we got approval for a reserve in Malawi, and I sourced two beautiful females and two large, dominant males," he says. "Just before we were about to fly the Cheetahs to Majete, I got offered a third male Cheetah that had mistakenly been identified as a female, because he was so small. We called him Bob.

“Shortly after arrival in Malawi, the two dominant males got killed. Puny Bob turned out to be a true survivor and impregnated both of the females! He is still alive today, roaming the wilds of Majete, being a good boyfriend to all the cheetah mums.”

In 2021 there were just 7,100 African cheetahs left in the wild, down from an estimated 14,000 cheetahs in 1975.

Asiatic cheetahs are practically extinct, with around as few as 12 known to exist in Iran, proving just how crucial Vincent’s work in Africa is.

“My work gives me a purpose in life. It’s a tonne of work, and I’m hardly ever home, but I feel as if I’m making a positive contribution to biodiversity and society. It helps me sleep well at night," Vincent says.

Vincent’s conservation work is now being supported by Milkywire, a digital platform that allows you to support impactful grassroots organisations worldwide and see how your donation makes a difference. This ensures Vincent can spend his time in the field matchmaking cheetahs, instead of having to fundraise himself.

Inspired to act?

DONATE: You can find out how to donate to Vincent’s cheetah conservation work through his fundraising page on Milkywire

SPONSOR: The charity Born Free offers people the option to ‘adopt’ and sponsor a cheetah to help fund their conservation work. Find out more.


This article aligns with the following UN SDGs

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