The world’s fastest land animal, the cheetah, is sprinting towards the edge of extinction and could soon be lost forever unless urgent, landscape-wide conservation action is taken, according to a new study, “The global decline of cheetah Acinonyx jubatus and what it means for conservation,” published last month in the Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study reveals that only 7,100 cheetahs remain globally—the best available estimate for the species to-date. Furthermore, the cheetah has been driven out of 91% of its historic range. Asiatic cheetah populations were hit hardest, with fewer than 50 individuals remaining in one isolated pocket of Iran.
Due to the species’ dramatic decline, the study’s authors are calling for the cheetah to be up-listed from ‘Vulnerable’ to ‘Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Typically, greater international conservation support, prioritization and attention are granted to wildlife classified as ‘Endangered’, in efforts to stave off impending extinction.
Dr. Sarah Durant, 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.”
77% of the cheetah’s habitat falls outside of protected areas. Unrestricted by boundaries, the species’ wide-ranging movements weaken law enforcement protection and greatly amplify its vulnerability to human pressures. Indeed, largely due to pressures on wildlife and their habitat outside of protected areas, Zimbabwe’s cheetah population has plummeted from 1,200 to a maximum of 170 animals in just 16 years – representing an astonishing loss of 85% of the country’s cheetahs.
Scientists are now calling for an urgent paradigm shift in cheetah conservation, towards landscape-level efforts that transcend national borders and are coordinated by existing regional conservation strategies for the species. A holistic conservation approach, which incentivizes protection of cheetahs by local communities and trans-national governments, alongside sustainable human-wildlife coexistence is paramount to the survival of the species.