The team, whose members hail from 18 countries and include many top names in cheetah research, say that people have largely assessed the cheetah’s fate using data from national parks and other protected areas. But these are the places where the cat is safest, and they account for just a quarter of its range. After taking the unprotected regions into account, the team thinks that the IUCN should downgrade the cheetah by one step—from “vulnerable” to “endangered”.
The cheetah is one of the most wide-ranging of land predators. An individual’s home range can stretch for 3,000 square kilometers—roughly the size of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New Orleans combined. But it has been increasingly corralled into smaller and smaller areas, as its habitat gets sliced and fragmented by roads, farmland, fences, and other barriers. As I wrote in my elegy for giraffes, “As different populations become disconnected, each isolated pocket becomes dangerously vulnerable… This is a recurring theme in the natural world: Fragmentation brings disaster.”
So it is with cheetah. They were once spread throughout Africa, the Middle East, and southwestern Asia. Now, they’re confined to just 9 percent of that historical range, and their surviving strongholds aren’t that strong. There’s a healthy zone that stretches continuously across six countries in southern Africa and contains around 4,000 adults and adolescents—just over half of the world’s population. Only one other population, in the Serengeti of Kenya and Tanzania, holds more than 1,000 individuals. The 2,000 or so remaining cheetah are confined to 31 pockets of 200 individuals or fewer—and six of those pockets have populations in the single digits.
Around two-thirds of this precarious population lives outside the protections afforded by national parks. There, the cats are sparser, their threats more numerous, and their futures shakier. “In many areas there’s overhunting, which leads to a loss of prey—and if there’s no prey, there can be no cheetah” says Durant, who has been studying these animals for 25 years. “If there are no alternatives, cheetah occasionally take livestock, leading to retaliation. There’s a live trade in cheetah in the Horn of Africa, with captive animals heading towards the Gulf states.”
These threats are hard to measure, which is partly why our view of the cheetah’s status has been relatively rose-tinted. “Governments are often required to monitor their wildlife inside protected areas, but not outside them,” says Durant. “And monitoring is harder to do outside, because cheetah are shy and their densities are lower. We have no data.”
Durant and her colleagues created a mathematical model that simulated the cheetah’s fate. It revealed that if the unprotected populations fall by just 10 percent a year, we’ll lose 50 percent of the world’s cheetah in 15 years. even if the protected populations are stable. If they’re right, and nothing is done, today’s newborn babies will graduate from high school into a world with half as many cheetahs.