By Sarah Durant @SarahMDurant
Our recent report on global cheetah decline provides alarming reading. Using the best available information, we estimate that there are only about 7,100 wild cheetah left in the world. The species is now restricted to less than 10% of its historical distribution, and survives in just 33 populations, most of which number fewer than 100 individuals. Added to this perilous predicament is the fact that most cheetah live outside protected areas. There they face multiple threats including loss of habitat and prey; conflict with livestock and game keepers; and illegal wildlife trade in live cheetah for pets and dead cheetah for skins. Recent extinctions have been documented in western and central Africa, and there has been an estimated decline of 85% in Zimbabwe over the last 16 years. For those cheetah populations where there is sufficient information, most are declining. This evidence, together with ongoing pressures outside protected areas, led us to recommend that the IUCN Red List threat status of cheetah is up-listed from Vulnerable to Endangered.
The worsening of the threat status of cheetah should act as a wakeup call. Urgent action is needed if the survival of cheetah is to be secured. Undoubtedly, cheetah are a particularly challenging species to conserve. Although they are not the largest cat, less than a third the weight of a lion, they are one of the widest ranging, and may travel across areas in excess of 1,000km2 every year. They move this widely to find their prey, and because they need to avoid other large predators, including lion and spotted hyena, which may kill their cubs and steal their kills. But this also means that cheetah occur at much lower densities than other big cats, with densities seldom exceeding 2/100km2. In the Sahara, where a critically endangered population of cheetah still survives, we have documented densities as low as only one cheetah per 4,000km2. Thus cheetah need conservation over a much larger scale than is usually seen in terrestrial conservation.
To halt cheetah decline, we will have to surmount the difficulties of conserving a rare, wide-ranging and elusive big cat. But we also have to confront the realities of conservation in the developing countries where cheetah still survive. Communities who share their land with cheetah may face a daily challenge just to feed themselves and their families. They cannot afford to pay the costs of losing their precious livestock to cheetah, even if this is a relatively rare event.
That there is international public support for cheetah and other iconic megafauna is beyond doubt. This is evidenced by millions of international visitors who may travel thousands of miles to see such wildlife, and by the further millions who avidly watch wildlife programs streaming into their homes. We only lack effective means to channel the value that this wildlife generates into local communities that bear the real costs of living with cheetah and other problematic species.
Yet much has already been achieved. ZSL’s and WCS’s joint Range Wide Conservation Program for Cheetah and African Wild Dog has been working with range state governments for nearly 10 years, and have helped to put in place Regional Strategies and National Action Plans that provide a roadmap for the conservation of cheetah together with African wild dogs (the latter a species with similar ecology and facing similar threats to cheetah). These strategies and plans have the strong support of range state governments and conservation NGOs and lay out a list of all the actions that need to be undertaken to secure the survival of both species. More resources are needed to implement these roadmaps, and we also need innovative new ways for communities to benefit from the presence of wildlife.
Over coming decades Africa faces a critical period for its biodiversity. The continent’s human population is predicted to double by 2050, and the need to support and feed more people will exert unprecedented pressures on its wildlife and environment. However, lessons from Europe show that we should not give up hope. Here large carnivores faced imminent extinction towards the end of the 20th century. Yet today, due to protection and restoration programs, combined with policies that help foster coexistence between people and wildlife, there has been a resurgence of bears, wolves and lynx. People and large carnivores can live together, even when human densities are relatively high.
For cheetah, we urgently need to find the political will and the financial means to enable people and wildlife to coexist, and for both to prosper. Only then can we be sure that future generations will be able to continue to marvel at the sight of a cheetah at full speed, which approach those seen on our fastest motorways. If we fail, the fate of the cheetah will be in doubt.