Saving Cheetahs With Science

Conservationists Try To Boost Population

Namibia has the highest dunes in the world along with the Etosha Pan, which resembles the moon. It is also home to the fastest animal on land. Twenty-five hundred cheetahs live in Namibia, nearly one-quarter of the world's population. But today, these cats, which can attain speeds of 70 miles an hour, are running headlong toward extinction.

CBS News Correspondent Peter Van Sant reports on the work of some committed conservationists who want to save the cheetah.

"I met my first cheetah when I was 20, and so it's been over half my life that I've been working for them, says Laurie Marker, who considers herself lucky to have had the experience.

"They could be gone in our lifetime," she acknowledges.

But a group of American conservationists, including Marker and Dan Krause are working to keep these beautiful spotted cats from going extinct.

"Between 1980 and 1981, close to 7,000 cheetahs have been removed from these farmlands, caught in live traps usually andÂ…shot after that," says Marker, who knows farmers who have killed 200 cats over the past 15 years.

While some work to see that fewer cheetahs are shot, others like this team of Smithsonian scientists, come to Namibia to ensure that more are born. Jo Gail Howard leads a cheetah MASH unit armed with sophisticated gear to collect and free semen from sedated wild cheetahs.

"Most people would say this can't be done, just because a lot of this is really fragile equipment," says Howard. "The best thing about this is that we don't have to take this cat out of Namibia - that we can collect the sperm, freeze the sperm and take that back and let him go back to the wild."

The sperm will later be implanted in cheetahs in North American zoos. The idea is to broaden the ever-dwindling genetic pool. There are only about 8,000 to 10,000 cheetahs left in the world, and they're isolated in different areas. These isolated populations get inbred, opening up the species to disease and a population decline.

With the survival of the cheetah depending, in part, on the success of her work, Howard feels a good deal of pressure.

Marker has convinced a farmer to let the medical team onto his land. They're getting sperm samples from several cheetahs he recently trapped. Usually, the farmer says, he just shoots those he trapped.

They have traveled more than 7,000 miles for this high-quality cheetah sperm. Howard puts it on a block of dry ice, where it freezes into pellets. She then stores it in liquid nitrogen; then the sperm is good for 10,000 years.

Once back at her Florida lab, Howard uses her pioneering technique to inseminate captive cheetahs with the frozen Namibian sperm. This is a new procedure, which has failed more often than it has worked.

Howard has adapted for the cheetahs technology originally developed for humans, like artificial insemination and in-vitro fertilization.

She recalls going to Albuquerque to meets the frst North American cub born with the help of Namibian semen. "Even scientists know cute things when they see them," says Howard. The cheetah was named Esperanza, which means "hope" in Spanish.

After Esperanza grows up, she gives birth to cubs of her own, also through artificial insemination. Although they failed to survive, there is still enough frozen semen left to impregnate more cheetahs.

"If a lot of people don't try to help save the cheetah in all the various ways that we're working today, there's no doubt in my mind this species will go extinct," says Howard.