The world's fastest land animal and one of the planet's most popular creatures, the cheetah, is silently moving closer to extinction. Just 7,100 cheetahs remain, largely due to humans destroying their habitats.
The new study led by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), Panthera and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) found that cheetahs have been kicked out of 91% of their historic range. No population has remained unharmed, but those in Asia have been hit the hardest. Just 50 cheetahs remain in an isolated pocket in Iran.
Dr. Sarah Durant, ZSL/WCS lead author and Project Leader for the Rangewide Conservation Program for Cheetah and African Wild Dog, said:
"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."
Authors call for the cheetahs to be up-listed from 'Vulnerable' to 'Endangered' on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. They argue that more conservation measures are needed if we want to save the species.
"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. 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."
The felines face a range of problems, all stemming from interactions with society. Aside from kicking them out of their historic range, humans also overhunt their prey, leaving the cheetahs unable to feed themselves. Because the species has such a wide range, it is highly vulnerable to human impacts and to make things even worse, cheetahs have also become popular as "pets." Even in protected areas and natural parks, they aren't safe. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers dropped from 1,200 to a maximum of 170 animals in just 16 years, an unprecedented drop in numbers.
The study came as quite a surprise and shows that the situation is much dire than most anticipated. We need to reanalyze thing and come up with concrete solutions - otherwise, next generations will see cheetahs only in history books. Speaking about this, Panthera's Cheetah Program Director, Dr. Kim Young-Overton, said:
"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. 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."
Journal Reference: Sarah M. Durant et al. The global decline of cheetah Acinonyx jubatus and what it means for conservation. PNAS, December 27, 2016 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1611122114