SAN FRANCISCO, 2 MARCH 2009
Dear EarthTalk: What's happening with wild populations of
cheetahs, the fastest land animals on Earth?
Eduardo Ramirez, Braintree, MA.
Due to its plight in recent decades, the cheetah, which can
reach speeds of 70 miles per hour, is considered one of the
world's most endangered species by the Convention of
International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
A hundred years ago some 100,000 wild cheetahs inhabited 44 or
more countries throughout Africa and Asia. According to the
Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), a Namibia-based non-profit
organization, today the species exists in only two dozen of
those countries - including areas of North Africa, the Sahel,
East Africa and southern Africa - with worldwide population
numbers now between 12,000 and 15,000 individuals living in
small groups. In addition, about 150-200 of the fast cats live
in the wild in Iran (where they are known as the Asiatic
Cheetah), their forebears having been brought in from Africa in
the early 20th century.
A cheetah mother and her cub on the Masai Mara
National Reserve in Kenya
Photo: Getty Images
The chief threats to the cheetah's existence are loss of
habitat, poaching and hunting (their hide and trophies can
command top dollar), and getting shot by livestock farmers.
Decline of gazelles, wildebeests, impalas and other preferred
prey species (also due to hunting and habitat loss) is a
According to CCF, throughout Africa cheetah numbers are
dwindling even within protected wildlife reserves due to
increased competition from other larger predators like lions
and hyenas. As a result, most protected areas are unable to
maintain viable cheetah populations, so individual cats tend to
fan out beyond wildlife reserves, placing them in greater
danger of conflict with humans. Those cheetahs that do survive
in the wild come from a smaller, less diverse gene pool,
leaving them susceptible to disease and predation in their own
right. Furthermore, captive breeding has proven tricky, and
wildlife biologists are not optimistic that such efforts can
have a measurable positive impact on the cheetah's future.
Cheetahs have lean bodies, long legs, a large heart and
expansive lungs. And with these features come additional speed;
perhaps this is why the cheetah is often referred to as the
"greyhound" of the cats. In fact, some say a cheetah looks like
a "dog with a cat's head." But with weaker jaws and smaller
teeth than other large predators, cheetahs have difficulty
protecting their kills, let alone their own cubs. This has
meant that population numbers for wild cheetahs are falling
faster than for other big cats.
The cheetah's future may look dim, but conservationists have
been working to lessen the decline in some areas. For instance,
CCF began educating livestock farmers around Namibia in the
early 1990s about how to prevent cheetahs from preying on their
livestock without resorting to the rifle. As a result of these
education efforts, along with stronger enforcement of
endangered species and anti-poaching laws, cheetah populations
in that country stabilized - now some 2,500-3,000 cheetahs make
their home in Namibia - after having fallen to half that the
previous decade. Clearly more such efforts are needed.
CONTACTS: Cheetah Conservation Fund, www.cheetah.org; Convention of
International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), www.cites.org.
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