Are Cheetahs Racing Towards Extinction?

Fewer than 7,000 adult and adolescent cheetahs remain in the wild.

cheetah licking cub
There are fewer than 7,000 cheetahs in the wild.

 Vittorio Ricci - Italy / Getty Images

Some researchers fear the world’s fastest land animal could be at risk. With fewer than 7,000 adult and adolescent cheetahs in the wild, cheetahs are classified as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. They are listed as “endangered” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Most wild cheetahs live in small groups throughout Africa. With continued threats from habitat loss, hunting, and the illegal pet trade, the cheetah population continues to dwindle. The species has faced extinction at least twice in the past and may be barreling towards survival challenges again.

Threats to Cheetahs

These big cats face challenges from their dwindling habitats, conflicts from farmers and hunters, and their limited genetic diversity.

Habitat Loss

Most wild cheetahs live in areas of Africa, including Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa, and Namibia and Botswana in southern Africa. The Asiatic cheetah also lives in Iran, but is critically endangered. Cheetahs have become extinct in at least 13 countries over the past 50 years, according to Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute.

Cheetahs live in a wide range of habitats, from dry forests and grasslands to thick scrubs and hyper-arid deserts. But all these habitats are decreasing as more humans clear land for roads, farming, and their own homes. 

Cheetahs are also relative loners that require wide-ranging habitats to hunt. There are rarely more than two animals per 100 square kilometers, so they need much more land to survive than other carnivore species. That low density means they are especially vulnerable to habitat loss, says the IUCN.

Conflict With Humans

As human development encroaches on their habitat, cheetahs now are commonly found living on the edge of farmland. Cheetahs tend to prefer hunting wild prey over killing livestock. But in some cases, older, injured, or inexperienced cats will stalk cows, sheep, and goats. If wild game is limited in an area, a cheetah also might resort to hunting farm animals. Farmers may kill the big cats in retaliation after they kill or preemptively before they can get to their animals.

cheetah stalking
Cheetahs will sometimes stalk livestock or compete with hunters for wild prey.  wilpunt / Getty Images

The loss of even one animal can be devastating to a farmer’s livelihood. That’s why farmers often take swift and immediate action

In locations where game hunters are competing with the same prey as the big cats, they might trap and kill cheetahs so they won’t go after the same valuable prey. In the 1980s, livestock and game hunters reduced the cheetah population in half in Namibia.

Illegal Trade

For thousands of years, cheetahs have been kept as pets by some rich and elite members of society. Emperors, kings, and pharaoh kept them as symbols of power, and that practice continues today in some places. The illegal pet trade is most likely the main reason that the Asiatic cheetah is extinct through most of its former habitat, according to the Cheetah Conservation Fund.

Although in many countries it’s illegal for cheetahs to be taken from the wild, cubs are often smuggled out of Africa by wildlife brokers. The CCF reports that they are most often taken to the Middle East, where demand is the highest. The group estimates that only about one in six cubs survives the journey from the wild, usually because of malnutrition or veterinary problems.

In addition to being taken from the wild for pets, cheetahs are sometimes hunted illegally for their skins, according to the IUCN.

Reproductive Issues

Cheetahs are believed to have faced two bottleneck events in their history that drastically changed the size of their population, reports National Geographic. The remaining cats had to mate with each other to survive. This inbreeding through the years has led to low levels of genetic variation, making cheetahs more susceptible to disease and making it more difficult to adapt to changes in the environment. Cheetahs also may be susceptible to infectious diseases spread by domestic cats. These genetic issues make it more difficult for the cheetah to reproduce.

What We Can Do

More than three-quarters of cheetah range is on unprotected land, says the IUCN. Although the big cat is protected under some legislation, some countries allow the cheetah to be killed when it threatens people or livestock. Conservation groups such as the African Wildlife Foundation work with communities to construct livestock enclosures that protect them from cheetahs. They also provide funding to farmers that have lost animals to the big cats, so they can replace their cows, goats, and sheep without retaliation. You can donate to the group or help fundraise.

The Cheetah Conservation Fund breeds Anatolian shepherd and Kangal dogs as part of its livestock guardian dog program. The dogs are placed with Namibian farmers to help guard their flocks and scare cheetahs and other predators away. You can donate to the fund for this program or any of its conservation, research, and education projects.