There were more than 100,000 cheetahs across Africa and Asia before 1900. Today, the wild cat has gone extinct in more than 20 countries. According to a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the global cheetah population has dwindled to just 7100, most of them living in Africa. They are sprinting towards extinction largely because they range beyond protected areas, coming into conflict with humans.

Cheetah Extinction
Image Credit: SuzyT / Pixabay

The animal has lost 91% of its historic habitat

The cheetah population in Zimbabwe has declined about 90% from 1200 in 1999 to just 170 in 2015. Scientists have called for a re-categorization of the animal’s conservation status from “vulnerable” to “endangered.” The speedy cheetah has lost about 91% of its historic habitat. The animal has almost vanished from Asia, with less than 50 remaining in Iran.

More than 50% of the world’s surviving cheetahs are in just one population that ranges across six countries in southern Africa. There are roughly 1000 of them in the Serengeti in Tanzania and Kenya. The remaining are scattered across a few dozens of protected habitat. Scientists estimated that only 2360 of these fastest animals on land are in conservation areas. These parks and reserves are “too small to sustain populations that are viable in the long term.”

77% of cheetah habitat is outside the conservation areas

Since they are among the wildest-ranging carnivores, the powerful predators mostly roam outside the protected areas. Dr. Sarah Durant of the Zoological Society of London, the lead author of the study, said about 77% of the animal’s habitat is outside the national parks and reserves. Their habitat is shrinking as more areas are developed into farmland.

Dr. Sarah Durant said it had been difficult to gather data on the fabled predators due to their secretive nature. As a result, their plight has gone unnoticed for far too long. Though the governments do keep track of cheetahs within conservation areas, there was little data on the number of cats outside them.

Illegal trafficking a major concern

The cheetah is far more vulnerable to extinction than previously thought because of large space requirements and complex range of threats faced by the species. Besides shrinking habitat, the decline in cheetah population is fueled by illegal trafficking of cubs.

According to BBC, there is a huge demand for cubs in the Gulf countries. A cheetah cub can fetch as much as $10,000 on the black market. Data from the Cheetah Conservation Fund shows that approximately 1200 cubs have been trafficked out of Africa in the last ten years. But 85% of them died during the journey.

Researchers have called for a “paradigm shift in conservation” to ensure the long-term survival of the species. Instead of just declaring an area to be protected, the governments should focus on “incentive-based approaches,” suggested scientists. It involves paying the local communities to protect the cheetah that most people see as a dangerous predator.