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Cheetahs are racing toward extinction

A captive cheetah runs in an enclosure at the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Otjiwarongo, Namibia, on Feb. 18. (Gianluigi Guercia/AFP via Getty Images)

More than 100,000 cheetahs prowled Africa's arid grasslands little more than a century ago. But the powerful predators now number just 7,100, and their populations are plummeting toward extinction, according to a new report.

In a study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers called for cheetahs' conservation status to be raised to “endangered,” to reflect their low numbers and stave off further declines.

“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,’ lead author Sarah Durant, a researcher at the Zoological Society of London and the Wildlife Conservation Society, said in a statement. “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.”

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Cheetahs, the fastest animals on land, require home ranges that can span thousands of miles. Their habitat once extended across Africa all the way to southwestern Asia. But it has been fragmented by humans, and the population is divided as a result. This splintered existence makes survival even more difficult for animals; without genetic diversity from breeding with unrelated animals, each fragile group becomes even more vulnerable to disease, food shortages and environmental change.

Of the 7,100 cheetahs estimated by the study, there is one relatively healthy group of about 4,000 living across six countries in southern Africa. Then there are about 1,000 in the Serengeti, plus clusters as big as 200 and as small as 10 scattered across a few dozen pockets of protected habitat. The species has been all but wiped out in Asia — just 50 still live in Iran.

More than 75 percent of the cheetah's range is not part of a protected area, and that makes it difficult to ensure their safety — or even figure out how many of the creatures are still alive. Though governments are required to keep track of cheetahs within national parks, there is little data on the number of animals outside them. But the animals' extensive ranges mean they're constantly roving past the reach of protections afforded them on public lands. Beyond these borders, cheetahs risk run-ins with humans: They may be slain to protect livestock, struck by cars, or hunted for sale on the black market, where a cub might fetch as much as $10,000, according to the BBC.

The study authors say it's time for a “paradigm shift” in thinking about cheetah conservation. National parks can provide only so much protection — and try explaining the concept of borders to a cat. Instead of focusing on protected areas, “we must think bigger, conserving across the mosaic of protected and unprotected landscapes that these far-ranging cats inhabit,” said Kim Young-Overton, director of the cheetah program at the conservation group Panthera.

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The effort to count the population in Zimbabwe, which consists of no more than 170 animals, offers an example of this kind of “big thinking.” A group called Conservation Project Zimbabwe sought cheetah photographs and reports of sightings from tourists and safari guides and interviewed thousands of village leaders and ranchers to arrive at that number — which represents a decline of almost 90 percent since the start of the millennium.

Working across this “mosaic” landscape will enable researchers to get a firmer idea of where cheetah populations really stand. A model developed by Durant and her colleagues to simulate the effects of the current rate of decline — about 10 percent per year in unprotected populations — suggested that the world could lose half of its remaining cheetahs in 15 years. And that's a conservative estimate; it doesn't take into account the effects of habitat fragmentation.

“It’s a timely paper,” Yeneneh Teka, who used to work at the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority and is now at the U.S. State Department, told the Atlantic. “It should help to alert policymakers that the cheetah population is declining and measures have to be in place to save those outside protected areas.”

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