“I wish dinosaurs weren’t exstinked,” said my 7 year old. He looked up at me, quizzically. “What does “exstinked” mean anyway?”
“Extinct,” I gently correct him, “means gone forever.”
“Like forever forever?” he wants to know.
“Yes, like forever forever,” I sigh as my thoughts immediately turn to the plight of the cheetah. A new study led by Panthera, Zoological Society of London and Wildlife Conservation Society shows that this iconic symbol of Africa’s vast open spaces is on a perilous trajectory towards extinction — forever!
An Indefinite Future for Cheetahs
The study’s investigators found that only 7,100 cheetahs remain in the wild, and they are calling for the cheetah to be uplisted from “Vulnerable” to “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Recognizing the cheetah as Endangered will afford this big cat a higher profile, stronger protection measures, and greater allocation of conservation resources.
Supporting the up-listing of the cheetah is a no-brainer — but it’s not enough. Wild cheetahs remain in only nine percent of their historical range and a staggering 77 percent of this lies outside protected areas, where their numbers are dwindling due to human-wildlife conflict, loss of prey and loss of habitat. Indeed in just over 16 years, cheetah have disappeared from 65 percent of their range in Zimbabwe, where they have plummeted from 1,200 individuals in 1999 to as few as 170 today — an astonishing reduction of 85 percent, with remaining cheetahs now residing almost entirely in Zimbabwe’s protected areas.
Unless we act, populations elsewhere are likely to suffer the same fate. Predictive models in the study warn that populations outside protected areas must be sustained by high growth rates of populations inside protected areas — but even in protected areas, cheetahs are perilously vulnerable.
With naturally low fertility rates and other predators (lions, leopards, and hyenas) killing their cubs and stealing their kills, cheetah populations naturally teeter on a knife’s edge. Cheetahs inside reserves are threatened by low prey availability due to illegal hunting, serious and sometimes fatal wounds from snares used for poaching, and being killed directly for their skins. Indeed, this year our studies are revealing alarming numbers of cheetah being directly poached from within and around some protected areas in southern Africa.
With 75 percent of all cheetah populations comprising less than 50 individuals — and 18 percent not even reaching double digits — such events are not insignificant. Every cheetah counts, and nowhere is this truer than in Iran, where the world’s last remaining population of Asiatic cheetahs numbers no more than 43 individuals.
Given the study’s findings and the wide-ranging habits of cheetahs, sometimes including swaths of land up to 3,000 square kilometers, we need to change the way we think and manage wild cheetah populations if we are going to keep them from going extinct. No longer can we just address human-wildlife conflict outside protected areas or illegal poaching inside protected areas. We need to work across organizations, sectors, and governments to implement interventions that transcend the boundaries of protected areas, countries, and landscapes. We need to create safe havens for cheetahs inside of protected areas by eliminating the illegal hunting of cheetah and their prey. In unprotected areas, we need to build tolerance, reduce human-wildlife conflict and ensure safe passage through human-occupied landscapes so cheetahs can both live within and move between protected areas.
What We Can Do
People often ask me how they can help make a difference. No matter where you live, you can get involved and help save the world’s remaining cheetahs. You can donate to organizations like Panthera, which is on the front lines in the fight to protect cheetahs. You can also start your own fundraiser for cheetahs and help spread the word about the state of cheetahs by sharing information (like this infographic) with your friends and family. To make sure you’re getting the latest news on cheetahs and our work to protect them, join Panthera’s email list and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
With your support, we can implement the measures needed to protect cheetahs across their range, so that we associate cheetahs, their spots, speed, and the vast landscapes they inhabit with Africa—forever.
Lead image source: Ondris/Shutterstock