Amani, a four-year-old female cheetah, gave birth to two cubs on October 3 at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute (NZCBI) in Front Royal, Virginia, NZCBI announced in a statement last week. Though the baby animals are not on display, they can be seen virtually on the Cheetah Cub Cam.
The young cheetahs appear to be strong, active, vocalizing and nursing well, per the statement. Zookeepers won’t visit the cubs until their mother is comfortable leaving them alone for an extended period, but animal care staff are monitoring them with cameras.
Worldwide, cheetahs are vulnerable to extinction. They have disappeared from around 90 percent of their historic range in Africa, and only one population of about 50 animals remains in Asia. Compared to the 25,000 wild cheetahs that lived in the early 1980s, some 7,000 exist in the wild today. As of 2019, there were close to 400 cheetahs in North America’s captive breeding population.
“There just aren’t very many cheetahs in the wild and not so many in human care,” Pamela Baker-Masson, the director of communications at NZCBI, tells WTOP’s Valerie Bonk. “They are a challenge; there’s no other way to put it—a challenge for breeding.”
Today, cheetahs are particularly vulnerable to threats—including climate change, human hunting and habitat destruction—in part because of a lack of variety in their gene pool. Two past dips in cheetahs’ population size led to inbreeding between the few remaining animals. This reduced the felines’ genetic diversity, making it more difficult for them to adapt to environmental changes, per the National Geographic Society.
The newborn cubs are Amani’s first children, and they’re also the first offspring of Asante, the seven-year-old father, according to the NZCBI. As the products of two first-time parents, the twins have genes that are different from those of other living cheetahs, making them a valuable addition to the species’s gene pool, per Washingtonian’s Keely Bastow.
“We want a population of cheetahs with the most genetic diversity possible,” Baker-Masson tells WTOP. “Genetic diversity means a healthy, thriving population, and it enhances our ability to do more.”
NZCBI belongs to the Cheetah Breeding Center Coalition, a group of ten breeding centers in the United States. Scientists considered Amani’s and Asante’s genetic makeup, health and temperament when pairing them, according to NZCBI. The cubs will be kept within the national breeding program, but they may eventually be moved to different facilities, per Washingtonian.
The new litter is the 17th born at the facility since 2007 and the first since five cheetahs were born last October. They will be visible on the cub cam until they leave their dens.
“Being able to watch our cheetah family grow, play and explore their surroundings is incredibly special,” NZCBI cheetah biologist Adrienne Crosier says in the statement. “We hope this experience brings Cheetah Cub Cam viewers joy and helps them feel a deeper connection to this vulnerable species.”