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Chee­tahs should be listed as Endan­gered say scientists

pub­lished 15 Decem­ber 2017 | mod­i­fied 15 Decem­ber 2017

A com­pre­hen­sive assess­ment of chee­tah pop­u­la­tions in south­ern Africa sup­ported by the National Geo­graphic Soci­ety reveals the dire state of one of the planet’s most iconic big cats. In a study pub­lished on 11 Decem­ber in the open-​access jour­nal PeerJ, researchers present evi­dence that low chee­tah pop­u­la­tion esti­mates in south­ern Africa and pop­u­la­tion decline sup­port a call to list the chee­tah as “Endan­gered” on the Inter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threat­ened Species.

Cheetahs, Hwange, 2011Three grown up chee­tahs (Aci­nonyx juba­tus) accom­pa­nied by their mother (out of the frame) enjoy one of the few open grass­land area in Hwange. This photo was taken in 2011 and since then, they have been mon­i­tored by the Chee­tah Con­ser­va­tion Project Zim­babwe (led by Dr. E. van der Meer) and the young female on the left (HNP013) had had three lit­ters of her own.
Image credit National Geo­graphic Society/​Stéphanie Périquet

With par­tial sup­port from the National Geo­graphic Society’s Big Cats Ini­tia­tive, an inter­na­tional team of 17 researchers, led by Flo­rian Weise of the Claws Con­ser­vancy and Var­sha Vijay of Duke Uni­ver­sity, analysed more than two mil­lion col­lared chee­tah obser­va­tions from a long-​term study by the Leib­niz Insti­tute for Zoo and Wildlife Research and another 20,000 chee­tah obser­va­tions from the research com­mu­nity and the gen­eral pub­lic, the lat­ter being a novel aspect of the research. Their find­ings show that free-​ranging chee­tahs were present across approx­i­mately 789,700 km2 in Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Zim­babwe between 2010 and 2016.

This col­lab­o­ra­tive, mul­ti­year effort sounds the alarm about the state of chee­tah pop­u­la­tions in south­ern Africa, shin­ing a light on the imper­a­tive need to pro­tect these majes­tic preda­tors. The National Geo­graphic Soci­ety is proud to sup­port such a com­pre­hen­sive assess­ment and sim­i­lar efforts aimed at safe­guard­ing our most pre­cious species, their habi­tats and the planet we call home.” Gary E. Knell, pres­i­dent and CEO, National Geo­graphic Society

The study esti­mates only 3,577 adult chee­tahs exist in this exten­sive area, which is larger than France, and a major­ity (55 per­cent) of indi­vid­u­als are found within only two habi­tats. This esti­mate is 11 per­cent lower than the IUCN’s cur­rent assess­ment, sup­port­ing the call for the uplist­ing of chee­tahs from ‘Vul­ner­a­ble’ to ‘Endangered’.

This is the area with the largest pop­u­la­tion of free-​ranging chee­tahs left on Earth. Know­ing how many chee­tahs there are and where they occur is cru­cial for devel­op­ing suit­able con­ser­va­tion man­age­ment plans for the species.” Var­sha Vijay of Duke Uni­ver­sity and for­mer National Geo­graphic Big Cats Ini­tia­tive Duke Intern.

To bet­ter under­stand this rare and elu­sive species, we need to com­ple­ment the mon­i­tor­ing of con­firmed pop­u­la­tions with the inves­ti­ga­tion of pos­si­ble chee­tah habitat.

Var­sha Vijay, co-​author, Nicholas School of the Envi­ron­ment, Duke Uni­ver­sity, USA

The study not only esti­mated the num­ber of chee­tahs in areas with con­firmed sight­ings, but also iden­ti­fied places where it is pos­si­ble for chee­tahs to live but where they have not been recently observed. The authors used infor­ma­tion about chee­tah habi­tat and human and live­stock den­si­ties to iden­tify an area of pos­si­ble chee­tah pres­ence almost as large as the con­firmed chee­tah range.

This study also con­firmed that the sta­tus of chee­tahs on pri­vately owned land is a press­ing con­ser­va­tion issue. The researchers found that only 18.4 per­cent of chee­tah range is within inter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized pro­tected areas. Namibia exem­pli­fies this, with much of chee­tah dis­tri­b­u­tion over­lap­ping with areas of live­stock and game production.

Inter­views with some farm­ers who share their land with chee­tahs showed that nearly half of those sur­veyed con­sider chee­tahs a source of con­flict (49.7 per­cent), while only a minor­ity of farm­ers (26.5 per­cent) actively per­se­cute (e.g., kill or trap) the species. Using pop­u­la­tion mod­els informed by per­se­cu­tion data, the study found that even a few farm­ers per­se­cut­ing ani­mals can cause pop­u­la­tion declines, espe­cially when repro­duc­tive con­di­tions are not optimal.

The future of the chee­tah relies heav­ily on work­ing with farm­ers who host these big cats on their lands, bear­ing the heav­i­est cost of coex­is­tence,” said Weise.

The authors con­clude that the results of this study strongly sup­port the recent call, led by the Range Wide Con­ser­va­tion Pro­gram for Chee­tah and African Wild Dogs’ team at the Zoo­log­i­cal Soci­ety of Lon­don, for the IUCN to uplist the chee­tah from Vul­ner­a­ble sta­tus to Endan­gered. This step would cre­ate aware­ness about the cheetah’s pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tion and open more avenues to fund con­ser­va­tion and pop­u­la­tion mon­i­tor­ing efforts. Besides giv­ing direc­tion to fur­ther research, the authors pro­vided an exam­ple of effec­tive col­lab­o­ra­tion and trans­par­ent infor­ma­tion sharing.

By work­ing together and reach­ing out to the pub­lic for assis­tance, con­ser­va­tion­ists can chart the way for­ward to help secure the future of the chee­tah.” Dr. Stu­art L. Pimm, Doris Duke Chair of Con­ser­va­tion Ecol­ogy at Duke Uni­ver­sity and senior author of the study.

(Source: National Geo­graphic Soci­ety press release, 11.12.2017)

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