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Sprint­ing towards extinc­tion? Chee­tah num­bers are plummeting

pub­lished 27 Decem­ber 2016 | mod­i­fied 27 Decem­ber 2016

Cheetahs runningThe world’s fastest land ani­mal, the chee­tah (Aci­nonyx juba­tus), is sprint­ing towards the edge of extinc­tion and could soon be lost for­ever unless urgent, landscape-​wide con­ser­va­tion action is taken, accord­ing to a study pub­lished on 26 Decem­ber in the jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the National Acad­emy of Sci­ences.

Study find­ings
Led by Zoo­log­i­cal Soci­ety of Lon­don (ZSL), Pan­thera and Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Soci­ety (WCS), the study reveals that just 7,100 chee­tahs remain glob­ally, rep­re­sent­ing the best avail­able esti­mate for the species to date. Fur­ther­more, the chee­tah has been dri­ven out of 91% of its his­toric range. Asian chee­tah pop­u­la­tions have been 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.

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.
(Dr. Sarah Durant, lead author, Project Leader for the Range-​wide Con­ser­va­tion Pro­gram for Chee­tah and African Wild Dog)

Cheetah conservation infographic; credit PantheraThis 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,” said Durant.

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 renowned for its speed and spots, chee­tahs face a high degree of per­se­cu­tion both inside and out­side of pro­tected areas that is largely unrecog­nised. Even within guarded parks and reserves, chee­tahs rarely escape the per­va­sive threats of human-​wildlife con­flict, prey loss due to over­hunt­ing by peo­ple, habi­tat loss and the ille­gal traf­fick­ing of chee­tah parts and trade as exotic pets.

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.

New chee­tah con­ser­va­tion approach
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 incen­tivises pro­tec­tion of chee­tahs by local com­mu­ni­ties and trans-​national gov­ern­ments, along­side sus­tain­able human-​wildlife coex­is­tence is para­mount to the sur­vival of the species.

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.
Dr. Kim Young-​Overton, Panthera’s Chee­tah Pro­gram Director »

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,” said Young-​Overton.

The method­ol­ogy used for this study will also be rel­e­vant to other species, such as African wild dogs, which also require large areas of land to pros­per and are there­fore sim­i­larly vul­ner­a­ble to increas­ing threats out­side des­ig­nated pro­tected areas.

(Source: Pan­thera press release, 26.12.2016)

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