Incredible speeds aside, cheetahs spend most of their days resting. They nap the hottest parts of the day away beneath the shade. They chirp and purr to one another but don’t roar. They’re introverts. However, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), they’re also classified as one of over 40,000 species threatened with extinction,
Specifically, the cheetah, or Acinonyx jubatus, is classified as a vulnerable species. Its global population is declining, and a variety of factors, many human-caused factors, are responsible for this downward trend. Decades-old conservation efforts, however, are in place to reverse this decline and protect the speedy, iconic cheetah.
What Is a Vulnerable Species?
When the IUCN classifies a species as vulnerable, it faces a high risk of extinction. According to Our World in Data, researchers quantify extinction when extensive studies of a species’ habitat reveal “no reasonable doubt” that its last member has died.
The IUCN is a leading database for calculating extinction risk, and it has assessed over 150,000 species so far. It sets specific criteria to evaluate the threat level species face, including these particular metrics:
Population size is a significant indicator of a species’ health. For example, if a species’ population is small, or it’s small and has declined or is projected to in the future, it faces a higher extinction risk.
Or, the IUCN may look at where a species lives if its habitat is also diminishing, constricting the range where a species may be found, which also raises red flags.
Another method is through probability. A species is vulnerable if there’s at least a 10 percent chance that it will go extinct in the wild within the next 100 years – and the metric decreases the higher up we go in the scale. By contrast, a critically endangered species may have over a 50 percent chance of vanishing in the wild within a decade.
Read more: How Do We Know When a Species Is Extinct?
Are Cheetahs Endangered?
“Vulnerable” is where the cheetah currently sits, though some scientists are calling for its uplisting to “endangered.” Once, cheetahs lived across Africa and into areas of Asia such as the Arabian Peninsula and India. They prowled and slept in a variety of habitats, from savannahs to the Sahara to dry forests.
These days, the cheetah only takes up about 9 percent of its historical range. The disappearance isn’t recent – there were an estimated 40,000 wild cheetahs in 1960, and by the next 15 years, that number dropped beneath 20,000.
How Many Cheetahs Are Left in the World?
About 6,500 mature individuals remain in the wild, according to the most recent IUCN assessment in 2021, and they continue to decline.
Southern and Eastern Africa are the strongholds of the current cheetah population. The Asiatic cheetah, however, is almost extinct. Its population in Iran is reportedly at 50 or even lower, and the cheetah had all but disappeared in India, though efforts to reintroduce them into the wild yielded mixed results.
Read more: 5 Endangered Animals You Should Meet
Why Is the Cheetah Population Threatened?
A number of things put cheetahs at risk. Considering it’s the fastest land animal in the world, one cheetah alone needs a considerable amount of territory to roam. Individuals are so spread out, with a population density of about two per 100 square kilometers, making them even more sensitive to environmental changes.
Loss of territory — and with it, prey, water, and habitat — from human interventions and climate change disrupting species movement is a major blow to wild cheetahs.
The need for vast habitats is also part of why wildlife reserves or artificial habitats may not be the best option for cheetahs’ long-term survival without sufficient preparation or resources.
Lack of Prey
While protected areas exist within Africa, most of the cheetah population lives outside those areas. This means they conflict with farmers who are cohabitating on the land. Losing access to their preferred wild prey may prod cheetahs to begin going after livestock instead. In retaliation, farmers might trap or shoot cheetahs to protect their livestock.
Interspecies competition with larger predators, like the lion, even within protected areas, poses dangers. Many cheetah cubs don’t make it to adulthood in protected areas, and the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) points to a cub mortality rate as high as 90 percent.
European settlers in the 1970s who viewed cheetahs and other large carnivores as vermin also further reduced the population, according to the African Wildlife Foundation. But historically, the cheetah was admired as a symbol of status and an ideal hunting companion — a reverence that ironically further pressured cheetah populations. Though laws today prohibit exotic pet ownership, cubs still fall victim to illegal wildlife trafficking, a journey that they rarely survive.
Low Genetic Diversity
Before all of this, the global cheetah population dropped precipitously once, over 10,000 years ago. The resulting population bottleneck limited potential mating partners, leaving a lasting mark on cheetahs’ genetic diversity. Modern cheetahs are more susceptible to infectious diseases, with low genetic variety, as well as other physical issues from inbreeding.
A myriad of other factors continue to threaten the population. High-speed roads increase the likelihood of cars hitting cheetahs, and unregulated tourism risks separating cubs from their mothers or interrupting hunts.
Read more: The Cheetah’s Hunting Prowess, Decoded
How Can We Help the Cheetah Conservation Status?
Political insecurity and the lack of financial resources for investing in conservation are examples of the factors underlying many of the immediate risks cheetahs face. People working to sustain themselves and their farms may not have the incentive or ability to aid conservation either.
That’s why the mission to save cheetahs encompasses all corners. Preserving the environment and improving land management is a big part of the solution, but not the whole thing. Conservationists and organizations, local and international, are coming up with plans that are also community or policy-oriented.
Livestock Enclosures and Initiatives
Allowing humans and cheetahs to coexist in a changing world might look like establishing livestock enclosures, using guard dogs to scare away predators, and offering funding to farmers who may have lost livestock.
Long-Term Conservation: The Serengeti Project
The Serengeti Project through the Cheetah Conservation Initiative is the longest-running project on cheetahs thus far, documenting yearly sightings and population numbers. Zoos worldwide are working on more effective breeding programs to increase the genetic diversity among cheetahs.
Education and Outreach Programs
Education and outreach programs raise public awareness of the cheetah’s vulnerability. Even developing new renewable fuel sources is part of this mission, given oil extraction or mining further exacerbates habitat fragmentation.
The cheetah’s nature can’t be changed: It will continue running, resting, and needing space to live. Just as the cheetah goes many places, so too does the effort to save them.
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