According to a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the world’s fastest land animal could be sprinting towards extinction.
The Zoological Society of London (ZSL), Panthera, and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) led the study. It estimates that only 7,100 cheetahs remain worldwide. The spotted cats are found mainly in Africa. But according to the study, cheetahs have been forced out of 91% of their native range. Cheetahs found in Asia are among the hardest hit. Fewer than 50 are left in a secluded and small part of Iran, according to the study.
Many factors are to blame for the decline in cheetah numbers. They include habitat loss and illegal trafficking, which is the selling of cheetahs and cheetah parts. Prey loss is also a problem. Humans cause it by overhunting animals that cheetahs prey on. Cheetahs are carnivores and prey mainly on smaller mammals, such as gazelles.
Fighting for the Future
Because cheetahs usually roam over large areas in search of food, 77% of their habitat remains outside of government-protected areas. This means that cheetahs are in constant danger of hunters and traders. In Zimbabwe, Africa, alone, the cheetah population has dropped from 1,200 to only about 170 in 16 years. This decline represents a loss of 85% of the country’s cheetahs.
Dr. Kim Young-Overton is Panthera’s Cheetah Program Director. She does not think protected habitats alone are enough to save cheetahs. Cheetahs in protected parks and reserves also face dangers such as loss of prey and illegal trafficking. “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,” she said in a press release.
Dr. Sarah Durant, of the ZSL and WCS, was the study’s lead author. She believes that the information it contains will lead to a better understanding of the felines as well as a better approach to helping them survive. “This study represents the most comprehensive analysis of cheetah status to date,” she said in the press release. “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.”
Durant says local and national officials must team up in order to save cheetahs. But first, she and the other study authors are calling on the International Union for Conservation of Nature to classify the animals as endangered. Currently, cheetahs are classified as vulnerable on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species. The change would focus more attention on cheetahs and help protect them from extinction. After all, in the fight to save cheetahs, it’s a race against time.