There are now only 7,100 cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) left in the world, according to a new study from the Zoological Society of London, Panthera, and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
The causes? The same ones as always — habitat loss and fragmentation, the “pet” trade, desertification (often driven by deforestation), and the over hunting of prey species.
The new study also found that the cheetah has now been driven out of 91% of its historic range, and that there are now fewer than 50 of the Asiatic cheetah left in the world, all clustered in one isolated portion of Iran.
As a result of the findings, the researchers behind it are calling for the cheetah’s status on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species to be upgraded to “Endangered” from “Vulnerable.” They are also calling for extensive international efforts to be made to prevent the extinction of the animal. Without “an urgent paradigm shift in cheetah conservation” — landscape-level efforts that go beyond national borders — the species will likely go extinct within the lifetime of many of those reading this.
What this would mean in practice of course is just that the extant cheetah would join its convergent-evolution “relative,” the American Cheetah, in extinction. (For more on this, see: 10 Extinct Animals Of The Last 100 Years, And Before.) Yet another loss for the world though, not something to be celebrated.
The extinction would, after all, mean the absolute end of the world’s fastest living land animal.
The press release provides more: “To make matters worse, as one of the world’s most wide-ranging carnivores, 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.”
That speed of extirpation is more or less what we can expect to see in most regions without significant changes to conservation strategies.
Dr Sarah Durant, ZSL/WCS lead author and Project Leader for the Rangewide Conservation Program for Cheetah and African Wild Dog, stated: “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 (the) 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.”
Durant continued: “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.”
While the cheetah’s situation is unique in some ways, it is not truly that different from the circumstances of a great many other animals now in the world, with regard to rapidly declining population numbers and range extent. Most of the world’s large animals are likely to go extinct within the next century without major and fundamental changes being made to structure of modern culture and behavior.
The findings of the new study are detailed in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.