Cheetahs Flourish on Spanish Plain
AJOFRIN, Spain Stalking teddy bears and towels before retiring to harass the family dog, 12-week-old cheetah cub Bunjee was blissfully unconcerned by the cameras trailing him around the Heidenreichs' house.
Outside, at the call of a whistle, his sleek black-spotted mother Bagheera streaked across the ground and into a spacious pen where Christa Heidenreich was waiting for her.
Heidenreich and her veterinary surgeon husband Manfred have achieved with Bagheera and Bunjee something thought almost impossible breeding cheetahs in captivity at their first attempt.
Given two South African cubs seven years ago, the German couple retired to Spain with the hope of breeding them, despite being told they were likely to fail.
They chose Spain because it offered a climate where the cheetahs would feel at home and a place with enough land for them to enjoy hunting. Cheetahs can reach up to 68 miles an hour during a chase.
Last year fewer than 10 baby cheetahs were born in Europe, said Manfred Heidenreich. This is despite strong interest in breeding the endangered felines whose numbers in the wild are thought to have dropped to between 12,000 and 15,000.
He was convinced that access to a tamed animal that would allow him to see exactly when it was on heat, could be a clue to success.
He kept meticulous daily diaries of Bagheera's reproductive cycles for three years and drove her to a German zoo to find a mate she fancied after she turned down Shirkhan, the male she grew up with.
Bunjee, the only surviving cub from a litter of five was the result, but Heidenreich, who has been fascinated by cheetahs since childhood, feels he is barely the beginning especially as Bagheera is pregnant again and due to give birth in November.
"My aim is to establish sure cheetah reproduction ... We want to have three or four females and two males," he said.
One of the main obstacles to successful breeding is the habits of females, who are in heat for very short periods, solitary by nature and fastidious about who they will mate with.
They are not interested in males they have grown up with -- even if they are not blood relations -- nor do they look kindly on male cheetahs who attempt to mate with them when they are not ovulating.
The Heidenreichs hoped to convince Bagheera to consider Shirkhan as a mate by splitting them up for a long time but she still recognized him as a "sibling."
"We tried separating them for a year, and put them together, and Bagheera seemed interested at first but she recognized him and when it came down to it she would not let him copulate with her. We had to find a male she did not know."
Female cheetahs in the wild usually come into contact with males only when they want to conceive so owners who put a female who is not fertile with a male who tries to mate her risk turning her off him, Heidenreich said.
Nor is artificial insemination likely to work, as a female cheetah releases her eggs only on penetration, Heidenreich said.
Popular as hunting animals and elegant pets with rulers ranging from Charlemagne to Akbar, the 16th century emperor of Mughal India, cheetahs are the only big cats that can be trusted not to turn on their owners if tamed, according to Heidenreich.
"Taming a cheetah is very easy, they are different to other big cats, never aggressive ... In 5,000 years there have been no accidents reported between cheetahs and humans.
"They never look for a fight because even if they get a very small injury on just one foot, they cannot run again and will die," he added.
However despite their great beauty, usefulness as hunters and non-aggressive nature, the spotted sprinters have never been domesticated because of the difficulties of breeding them.
Akbar's cheetah stable is reported to have contained up to 1,000 animals, but almost all were caught wild, probably between the ages of three and five, and tamed.
"Why are they not a domesticated animal if people have been living with them since 3,000 years before Christ?" said Heidenreich. "Because it was almost impossible to breed them in captivity."