It’s been a trying couple of weeks for many people. The deaths of two beloved celebrities has left the world in shock. Of course, I am talking about George Michael and Carrie Fisher, who have saturated every news programme, newspaper and news website in the UK at least. However, peering out from amongst the media chaos of dead celebrities, came a much more harrowing news flash. It was about the cheetah.
Everyone’s second favourite big cat (usually behind the lion or tiger) is going extinct, and it is happening at a far faster rate than we first realised. It has been estimated that only 7,100 cheetahs still remain in the wild. These numbers are particularly atrocious when you consider they now only inhabit 9% of their former territory. The historic range of the Cheetah was once all the way across most of Africa and into large swathes of Asia, the Middle East and India, making it one of the widest ranging of all big cats.
The recent investigation led by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have found that the entire Asian population now exists in just one small pocket in Iran, where less than 50 cheetah can be found. Unfortunately the problem is not much better in Africa, for example in Zimbabwe cheetah numbers have plummeted by 85% in close to a decade. Out of the 33 populations of cheetahs worldwide, 91% of them are comprised of less than 200 individuals. Due to this tragic state of affairs, experts believe the cheetah should be relisted on the IUCN Red List of Threatened species, moving from “Vulnerable” to “Endangered.” Therefore, promoting and encouraging the effort to save this magnificent cat.
Currently there are many well-managed parks and reserves which aid to protect the native wildlife, however these too have suffered. Perhaps unsurprisingly, humans are the main reason that cheetahs are in peril. Hunting the cheetahs prey, creating habitat loss and poaching are just a few of the problems. The main problem is the issue of habitat loss, often driven by agriculture or livestock farming. Less habitat means there is less prey and less space for cheetah, as they need large territories to hunt. Human interference is reducing the availability of land at an uncontrollable, and unregulated rate. To add insult to injury, cheetah are also sometimes killed by farmers as they are perceived as a threat to their livestock, even though the chances of this happening is very low indeed.
As mentioned earlier, a major driving force behind the problem is the hunting and killing of many the cheetah’s prey species, such as antelopes, gazelles, impalas, warthogs etc. The success rate for cheetah hunts is very low, and there is much fewer individual prey items to target, this is a major issue. Every time a cheetah fails to catch its prey, the chance of its next kill being successful drops significantly. With not enough hunting opportunities, many cheetahs simply starve to death, with new mothers her young will also starve. Like all species, cheetah suffer from issues such as vehicle collisions, and targeted directly by poachers (for their skin and other body parts) for bush-meat and even to sustain the illegal demand for cubs as pets.
The updated conservation status would provide a platform for these groups to try and reverse the issues affecting cheetahs. For instance, such a change can create openings for funding streams that are available only to endangered species, and they might allow for conversations with African governments about cheetah conservation programs. Unfortunately, it is almost certainly too late to protect the species in areas like West or Central Africa, which has seen a steady decline in all big cats. However, there may be potential for the population to rebound quickly in other areas.
It is hoped that the updated look into the state of cheetahs worldwide reinforces the importance and necessity of new conservation guidelines for the species. As cheetah are such wide ranging animals, 77% of their remaining habitat falling outside protected areas. The areas of land under protection are simply not big enough to help the cheetah populations. As a result, it is vital to take a different approach, one beyond just habitat conservation.
Cheetah conservation are hoping to help motivate both governments and local communities to protect the animal. Much like actions taken with other large mammals suffering similar problems, such as elephants and rhino, promoting the sustainable co-existence of humans and wildlife is the key. If we are unable to change people’s attitudes and encourage them to live harmoniously with the cheetah, it may be too late to avert the otherwise certain loss of the wonderful cheetah, forever.
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