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Providing evidence to improve practice

Action: Provide live natural prey to captive mammals to foster hunting behaviour before release Terrestrial Mammal Conservation

Key messages

Read our guidance on Key messages before continuing

  • Three studies evaluated the effects of providing live natural prey to captive mammals to foster hunting behaviour before release. One study was in Spain, one was in the USA and one was in Botswana.



  • Survival (2 studies): Two studies in Spain and Botswana found that a rehabilitated Iberian lynx and wild-born but captive-reared orphaned cheetahs and leopards that were provided with live natural prey in captivity survived for between at least three months and 19 months after release.


  • Behaviour change (1 study): A controlled study in the USA found that captive-bred black-footed ferrets fed on live prairie dogs took longer to disperse after release but showed greater subsequent movements than did ferrets not fed with live prairie dogs.

Supporting evidence from individual studies


A study in 1991–1992 in a shrubland and grassland site in Sierra Morena, Spain (Rodriguez et al. 1995) found that a rehabilitated Iberian lynx Lynx pardinus that was provided with live natural prey to foster hunting behaviour survived at least three months after release. The lynx was still alive at least 93 days after release, and locations of the radio-collar suggested it had established a 220 ha territory. On 6 July 1991, a wounded male Iberian lynx kitten (approximately four months old, weighing 2.0 kg) was brought into captivity. The wounds were treated and after 43 days the lynx was moved to a 5 × 5 m outdoor enclosure. The lynx was initially fed dead prey but, after 15 days in the enclosure, it was given live rabbits Oryctolagus cuniculus. After 112 days the animal (weight = 4.9 kg) was fitted with a radio-collar and moved to a 1-ha enclosure where 100 live rabbits had been released. After 83 days in this enclosure, on 2 March 1992, the animal (weight = 6.0 kg) was released in a pine stand, 9 km from where it was originally found. It was monitored daily until the collar dropped off.


A controlled study in 1992 in a grassland area in Wyoming, USA (Biggins et al. 1999) found that captive-bred black-footed ferrets Mustela nigripes fed on live white-tailed prairie dogs Cynomys leucurus took longer to disperse after release but showed greater subsequent movements than did black-footed ferrets not fed with live prairie dogs. Results were not tested for statistical significance. Black-footed ferrets fed on live prairie dogs dispersed less on average during the first three days post-release (5.6 km) than did those with no experience with live prairie dogs (7.9 km). However, they had a greater average cumulative movement over any three-day period (21.2 km) than did those without live prairie dog experience (15.6 km). Between September and October 1992, twenty-nine 16.5–18-week-old captive-bred black-footed ferrets were radio-tagged and released into a 20,596-ha site. Seventeen ferrets had been fed live white-tailed prairie dogs weekly at 13–16 weeks and 12 had no experience with live prairie dogs. All ferrets were born and raised in indoor 1.5-m2 cages. Ferrets were radio-tracked in October-November 1992.


A study in 2005–2009 in three dry savannah sites in Botswana (Houser et al. 2011) found that after being provided with live prey during captive rearing, orphaned cheetah Acinonyx jubatus and leopard Panthera pardus cubs successfully hunted live prey after release and survived for between 7 months and at least 19 months. All three cheetahs survived on naturally hunted prey after release. However, they were all shot and killed within seven months of release. The leopard hunted live prey, and remained alive 19 months after release. Three 3–6 month-old, wild-born cheetahs were taken into a rearing facility in January–February 2005. They were fed 1.5–3.0 kg of meat, six days/week. This decreased as live and dead rabbits, poultry and wild prey was gradually introduced. After 16 months, they were moved to a 100-ha enclosure stocked with live prey, primarily impalas Aepyceros melampus and tsessebes Damaliscus lunatus. They were released seven months later. The leopard was kept from October 2006 (when six months old) and released after 18 months in a holding facility stocked with live prey. Animals were satellite-tracked until death for the cheetahs (seven months) and for 19 months for the leopard (to November 2009).

Referenced papers

Please cite as:

Littlewood, N.A., Rocha, R., Smith, R.K., Martin, P.A., Lockhart, S.L., Schoonover, R.F., Wilman, E., Bladon, A.J., Sainsbury, K.A., Pimm S. and Sutherland, W.J. (2020) Terrestrial Mammal Conservation: Global Evidence for the Effects of Interventions for terrestrial mammals excluding bats and primates. Synopses of Conservation Evidence Series. University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK.