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11 October 2017, 05:28
A research project which could help save the cheetah and other endangered species will link the latest technological developments with the ancient tracking skills of Namibian hunter-gatherers.
Scientists at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh want to determine whether a new Footprint Identification Technique (FIT) can be adapted to discover if individual cheetahs are related.
The technique could give wildlife conservationists a cheaper, quicker and non-invasive monitoring technique that will have applications across all endangered species.
Cheetahs in the wild are classed as "vulnerable", with around 7,000 now estimated to exist from a figure of 100,000 at the start of the last century.
Larissa Slaney, life scientist and wildlife conservationist at Heriot-Watt, is examining whether a FIT can be used to find out if individual cheetahs are related.
She said: "First indications suggest that the current technology is picking up something about the relatedness of individual cheetahs.
"However, this crucial research project will help develop a new algorithm for FIT and improve its accuracy so it will hopefully be able to determine the relationship between individual cheetahs.
"This method can then be used in population monitoring and is particularly important in relocation cases to avoid inbreeding between related cheetahs.
"The San bushmen are renowned for their incredible tracking skills and can read a footprint like a book.
"If we can preserve that knowledge in the form of the cutting-edge FIT technology, it will offer invaluable support in the conservation of these amazing, vulnerable animals and hopefully other endangered species too."
The project will concentrate on addressing the cheetah's poor genetic variation, which is often overlooked in conservation projects that focus on habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict and the pet trade.
Traditional means of establishing genetic relationships between cheetahs are invasive, time consuming and expensive, including DNA analysis from tissue samples such as blood, hair, stool or saliva.
To help develop and test the FIT software, footprints and DNA from a captive cheetah population must be collected and the results analysed.
Ms Slaney is working with the N/a'an ku se Foundation, a conservation charity in Namibia, south-west Africa, to access to a large group of cheetahs.
She needs to raise £85,000 over three years and through her webpage Fit Cheetahs and the specialist science crowdfunding website Crowd.Science, has already raised 10% of the required funds for phase one.
She added: "Everyone loves cheetahs, but most people don't realise that this beautiful species is in trouble. I have chosen science crowdfunding to raise awareness and to get the public involved in helping the cheetah.
"If we can demonstrate that the FIT technique can be adapted to provide vital information on the interrelatedness of these increasingly rare animals, it will be of invaluable support in their chance of survival and, hopefully, that of other endangered species as well."