Image from Martin Pettitt
Cheetahs are fast, but can they outrun extinction? According to a new report released by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the speedy feline, which can reach speeds of up to 120 kilometers per hour, or 75 mph (making it the world's fastest land animal), is at risk of becoming the latest extinct species, The Independent's Ian Johnston reports. The report blames the cheetah's downfall on the usual suspects: habitat loss and degradation, urban development and hunting. Current populations levels stand at 10 percent of their historic highs.
Image from Wikimedia Commons
Breeding programs and other conservation efforts have had mixed success
To compound matters, efforts to breed them have proven notoriously tricky; cubs have a high mortality rate due to genetic factors and intense predation by lions, hyenas and other large carnivores. Inbreeding in smaller populations has only accentuated these defects, which include cramped teeth, curled tails and bent limbs -- leading some conservationists to believe that they can no longer be saved. Some breeding programs in zoos, which used in vitro fertilization, have been successful -- but not on the scale needed to save the species.
"Fewer than 10,000 adults in Africa, only 50 in Asia"
The UNEP report recommended that cheetahs receive increased protection in 80 percent of the countries they inhabit (the cheetah has already disappeared from 18 countries). The governments responsible for administering greater conservation efforts should focus on clearing migration routes that allow cheetahs to move between populations (facilitating gene exchange and improving species fitness) and on restoring their habitats. There are now fewer than 10,000 adults living in Africa -- the majority of which are in Namibia (at last count, their number stood around 2,500) -- and only 50 in Asia, adding to the urgency of the situation.
Two organizations working hard to rescue the critically endangered species include the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia and the Cheetah Conservation Foundation in South Africa.