Over the last 16 years, the cheetah population numbers in Zimbabwe have plummeted. Dipping from roughly 1,200 animals in 2000 to around 170 in 2016, according to a new study in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences. And this declining trend reflects the dire state of the animals worldwide, leading conservation scientists to ask authorities to upgrade its current classification from vulnerable to endangered.
According to the Cheetah Conservation Fund, before 1900, the cheetah population numbered over 100,000 and its range included the majority of Africa through the Middle East and into Asia. Since then, however, the animal has gone extinct in more than 20 countries, with a mere 7,100 animals remaining globally, according to a press release.
There is a single healthy population of about 4,000 cheetahs spread across six nations in southern Africa, Ed Yong reports for The Atlantic. Another group of more than 1,000 cheetahs live in the Serengeti in Kenya and Tanzania. The remaining 2,000 animals are found in 31 isolated bits of habitat with fewer than 200 individuals, he reports. Six of those areas have fewer than 10 animals. Asiatic populations have been wiped out except for an isolated group of 50 animals in Iran.
“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,’ said Sarah Durant, the report's lead author and researcher at the Zoological Society of London and the Wildlife Conservation Society says in the press release. “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.”
“Governments are often required to monitor their wildlife inside protected areas, but not outside them,” Durant tells Yong. “And monitoring is harder to do outside, because cheetah are shy and their densities are lower. We have no data.”
They are also challenging to protect because of their massive ranges. Matt McGrath at the BBC reports that 77 percent of the cheetah's habitat is not within protected parks or natural areas. Because individual animals can have a range as large as Manhattan, they often come into conflict with humans and their livestock. That leads to retaliation and hunting of cheetahs.
Another surprisingly large threat to cheetahs is the pet trade. According to David Shukman at the BBC, cheetah cubs have become a popular status symbol in the Gulf States. In the past 10 years alone 1,200 cubs, which can fetch $10,000 on the black market, have been captured and smuggled out of Africa. Only one in six of the cubs likely makes the journey alive, according to Cheetah Conservation Fund.
“They're probably just thrown into a crate, living in their own feces, traveling for days without proper food, and many of them end up dead on arrival at wherever that place would be, and maybe one or two living out of a pile that are dead,” Laurie Marker, director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund tells Shukman. And those that do make it probably don’t live past the age of two because of poor food and lack of exercise.
The researchers are calling for the endangered designation as well as efforts to coordinate regional conservation efforts between the nations where cheetahs still currently roam, according to the press release. They also suggest including incentives for the local population in conserving the cats.
“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,” Kim Young-Overton, Cheetah Program Director at the conservation group Panthera says in the release. “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.”