“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 Zoological Society of London, Wildlife Conservation Society and Panthera shows that this iconic symbol of Africa’s vast open spaces is on a perilous trajectory towards extinction—forever!
The study’s investigators estimate 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 9% of their historical range and a staggering 77% 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% 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%, 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 79% of all cheetah populations comprising 100 or fewer individuals—and several 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 cheetah, sometimes including swaths of land up to 3000 km2, 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 cheetah 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. Together, these measures need to protect cheetahs across their range, so that we associate cheetahs, their spots, speed, and the vast landscapes they inhabit with Africa—forever.