Huge decline surprises scientists who say that the world’s fastest land animal won’t escape extinction unless urgent conservation action is taken.
You’d think that being the fastest animal on land would have its benefits – the ability to outrun all others is a handy trick to have. But alas, for the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) it may not be enough. New research finds that the beautiful spotted cat is in dire straights and could become extinct unless “urgent, landscape-wide conservation action is taken.”
The new research comes from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), Panthera and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) – it reveals that a mere 7,100 cheetahs remain on the planet. The study finds that the cheetah has been driven out of 91 percent of its historic range. Of all, the Asiatic cheetah populations have been dealt the worst blow with fewer than 50 of the animals left, sequestered in an isolated pocket of Iran. Meanwhile, Zimbabwe's cheetahs have dipped from 1,200 to 170 animals, at most, in just 16 years.
Lead author of the study Dr. Sarah Durant says, "This study represents the most comprehensive analysis of cheetah status to date. Given the secretive nature of this elusive cat, it has been difficult to gather hard information on the species, leading to its plight being overlooked. Our findings show that the large space requirements for cheetah, coupled with the complex range of threats faced by the species in the wild, mean that it is likely to be much more vulnerable to extinction than was previously thought."
Which has prompted the authors to advocate for having cheetahs moved from 'Vulnerable' to 'Endangered' on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Hopefully this would lead to greater international conservation support to fend off extinction.
Although there are guarded parks and reserves in which cheetahs live, they are one of world's most wide-ranging carnivores and thus, 77 percent of their habitat extends beyond protected areas. And they may be fast, but humans are grabbier – cheetahs fall victim to overhunting, habitat loss and the illegal animals trafficking for body parts and exotic pets.
"We have worked with range state governments and the cheetah conservation community to put in place comprehensive frameworks for action to save the species, but funds and resources are needed to implement them,” says Durant. “The recent decisions made at the CITES CoP17 meeting in Johannesburg represent a significant breakthrough particularly in terms of stemming the illegal flow of live cats trafficked out of the Horn of Africa region. However, concerted action is needed to reverse ongoing declines in the face of accelerating land use changes across the continent."
"We've just hit the reset button in our understanding of how close cheetahs are to extinction. The take-away from this pinnacle study is that securing protected areas alone is not enough,” says Panthera's Cheetah Program Director, Dr. Kim Young-Overton. “We must think bigger, conserving across the mosaic of protected and unprotected landscapes that these far-ranging cats inhabit, if we are to avert the otherwise certain loss of the cheetah forever."