Washington: With the cheetah being driven out of 91 per cent of its historic range in Asia and Africa, the world’s fastest land animal could soon be lost forever unless urgent, landscape-wide conservation action is taken, warns a study.
While renowned for its speed and spots, the degree of persecution cheetahs face both inside and outside of protected areas is largely unrecognised, said the study that estimated the number of cheetahs left in the wild today to be just 7,100.
Asiatic cheetah populations have been hit hardest, with fewer than 50 individuals remaining in one isolated pocket of Iran, it added.
“The take-away from this pinnacle study is that securing protected areas alone is not enough,” said Kim Young-Overton, Cheetah Programme Director of Panthera, a non-profit organisation devoted exclusively to the conservation of the world’s wild cats.
“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,” she added.
Due to the species’ dramatic decline, the cheetah should be up-listed from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘endangered’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said.
Typically, greater international conservation support, prioritisation and attention are given to wildlife classified as ‘endangered’, in efforts to stave off impending extinction.
The researchers pointed out that 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 per cent 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 per cent of the country’s cheetahs, said the study.
“This 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,” lead author Sarah Durant from the Zoological Society of London pointed out.
“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,” Durant noted.