Cheetahs Never Prosper

A new study suggests that half the world's fastest cats will be gone in 15 years—and that's being optimistic.

Cheetah and cub in Hanover Zoo (Christian Charisius / Reuters)

The cheetah is the fastest animal on land—a fact that is often repeated, but seldom truly appreciated. When documentary-makers film cheetahs, they typically go for low-angle close-ups that capture the creature’s majesty, but that underplay its speed. The BBC’s The Hunt bucked the trend last year with aerial shots that reveal just how fast the cheetah is. Check out the clip below as it chases down a group of wildebeest.

It’s astonishing. Even when the cheetah is forced to slow down—twice—it manages to regain ground, closing seemingly impossible gaps in a mere handful of strides. “In a flat-out race,” David Attenborough says, “nothing can outrun a cheetah.”

Except, perhaps, extinction.

The omnipresence of the cheetah in documentaries and the popular consciousness is deceptive. It suggests that the species is stable, perhaps even thriving. In fact, for the last 30 years, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List has classified the animal as “vulnerable”—the third of seven categories of risk that go from “least concern” to “extinct”. And now, a 54-person team of scientists and conservationists led by Sarah Durant from the Zoological Society of London says that even this bleak picture is too optimistic. After compiling the most comprehensive data set on the cat’s whereabouts and status, they think it’s worse off than is commonly claimed.

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.

If anything, these results are conservative. The model doesn’t account for the fragmented nature of the cheetah’s world, which makes it more vulnerable than predicted. It might also underestimate the pace of the cat’s decline. For example, in Zimbabwe, cheetah-friendly habitat has contracted by 63 percent in the last decade, and its cheetah populations have fallen by 13 percent per year—a faster rate than what Durant’s team simulated. “We think we’ve been cautious, not exaggerated,” she says.

“It’s a timely paper,” says Yeneneh Teka, formerly of the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority and now based at the US Department of State. “It should help to alert policy makers that the cheetah population is declining and measures have to be in place to save those outside protected areas.”

You can’t just fence them away from humans and hope they’ll survive; our two species must find ways of co-existing. That might involve, for example, creating certification schemes that would allow local communities to sell goods at a premium, provided they can sustainability manage their local wildlife. “Cheetah-friendly beef or honey?” Durant suggests. “We need to come up with imaginative new responses that incentivize local people to protect their resources.”

As is typical for conservationists, she’s optimistic. Eighteen countries now have national action plans for conserving cheetahs. “They just need to be done,” she says. “We need resources, capacity, and political will. If we have that, there’s a possibility. And there needs to be more attention paid to this species. We hear a lot about the other big cats but less about the cheetah.”