You may not have had “cheetah matchmaker” featured at your high school career fair, but that’s just what Vincent van der Merwe’s business card may as well read. But trying to repopulate the highly vulnerable species can be as dangerous as it is exciting. Watch the video to see what happens when van der Merwe tries to translocate a very unhappy cheetah across South Africa.
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The relocation work depicted in this video is a partnership between the not-for-profit Endangered Wildlife Trust and African Parks Network, with funding provided in part by the National Geographic Society.
National Geographic caught up with Vincent, a National Geographic Big Cats Initiative grantee and conservation biologist, to learn more about his work as a big cat Cupid.
Q. What’s the state of cheetah conservation in South Africa?
A: South Africa is Africa’s most developed country, so it’s particularly difficult for cheetah to traverse the landscape. What we have done with our few remaining wildlife reserves is fenced them, so we have to swap individuals between these reserves to prevent inbreeding. And South Africa is the only country, worldwide, where we’ve actually seen an increase in wild cheetah numbers.
One of the most successful conservation operations in Africa is the non-profit African Parks Network (APN). They manage 10 large reserves in 7 countries across Africa, and they’ve created safe space for a myriad of species over 6,000,000 hectares of land. So it’s really great to be working with APN and reintroducing species into their reserves.
Q: How do you match mates?
A: I manage a studbook for  cheetah in 53 different reserves across the country as part of the EWT’s Carnivore Conservation Programme. I identify which cheetah are related to each other and prevent putting them onto the same reserves. It’s “human mediated gene flow,” which is just conservationists driving cheetah to a new reserve.
Q: What happens when you move them to the new reserve?
A: We put them in an enclosure called a “boma” for six weeks to three months, allowing them to realize what other large predators are present and it kills their homing instinct. As with any cat species, they have an instinct to go back to where they originally came from.
The favorite part of my job is getting to open the gate and let that animal go be a cheetah, watching it run off into the bush and have access to wide, open spaces again.
We carefully monitor them for a few weeks. If they’re not hunting successfully, we’ll drop an impala or warthog carcass to give them that little bit more energy to push them to hunt successfully.
Q: As a scientist you need to be objective, but is there any sort of personal connection?
A: When you work with these animals you develop a connection. I did the post-release monitoring for a cheetah who at first made silly decisions hunting species well out of her size range, walked silly routes into the middle of the lion territory. But in the process she learns. Eventually, she gave birth to her first litter and I saw that motherly instinct come out. And the very best moment is when you get that phone call from the reserve manger saying, “Vincent, we’ve got four new cubs that were born to the cheetah that you brought in here six months ago.” That is what really brings joy to my heart.
This interview has been edited for length and content.
For more on big cats, tune in to Big Cat Week, premiering Monday, Feb. 20, at 9/8c on Nat Geo WILD and learn more about the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative, a global initiative that supports scientists and conservationists working to save big cats in the wild. http://NatGeoBigCats.org
Learn more about the science and exploration supported by the nonprofit National Geographic Society at http://natgeo.org/grants.
SENIOR PRODUCER: Sarah Joseph
PRODUCER/EDITOR: Nora Rappaport
Cheetah Matchmaking: Helping Big Cats Find A Mate | Expedition Raw