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Why cheetahs are threatened

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Cheetahs once ranged across the entire African continent, except for the Congo Basin, and into Asia from the Arabian Peninsula to eastern India. Today, cheetahs are found in only 23 per cent of their historic African range and are extinct in their Asian range except for a small population in Iran of 70 individuals.  

There are 31 populations of cheetah where 50 per cent of total cheetah population lives in Southern Africa.  There are 20 population with less then 100 cheetah, making them very genetically vulnerable due to fragmentation and isolation. Furthermore, 76 per cent of the cheetah lives outside protected areas, and therefore more vulnerable to Human-Wildlife Conflict. 

The threats facing the cheetah are similar to those facing many other species fighting extinction.

Habitat loss

Cheetahs require vast expanses of land with suitable prey, water, and cover sources to survive. The cheetah’s movement across large areas of land depends on the availability of corridors and landscapes that are connected. As wild lands are destroyed and fragmented by human development and expansion, the cheetah’s available habitat is diminished. Numerous landscapes across Africa that could once support thousands of cheetahs now struggle with far fewer numbers.

Restoration of habitat, ensuring balance in the predator-prey ratio, and protection of the ecosystems are all efforts that are needed to address these threats.

Human-wildlife conflict

Surprisingly, cheetahs do not fare well in protected areas like national parks and wildlife reserves. This is because these areas normally contain high densities of other larger predators like the lion, leopard, and hyena, all of which compete with cheetahs for prey.  Given the opportunity, they will also prey on cheetahs. In these areas, cheetah cub mortality can be as high as 90%. As a result, nearly 90 per cent of cheetahs in Africa live in open areas and on private farmlands and therefore often come into conflict with people.

These lands are historically the ranges of cheetah.  But livestock have replaced the cheetah’s natural prey, fueling human-cheetah conflict.  Cheetahs are killed in retaliation for livestock predation or because of their perceived threat to human livelihood.

The farmer acts to protect his resources, often trapping or shooting the cheetah. Research estimates that cheetahs are only responsible for as little as 3 per cent of predation however they are blamed for much more since they are more visible to the farmer during the day.

Illegal wildlife trade

For centuries, the cheetah has been coveted for its beauty and physical capabilities. The cheetah has been depicted in art, literature and more recently, in the media, because of human being’s fascination with this big cat. With its relatively moderate size, the cheetah has been coveted by wealthy and privileged individuals in societies through the ages, mostly as a status symbol. Because cheetahs do not breed well in captivity, they had to be caught from the wild to support this exorbitant demand, which wreaked havoc on cheetah populations, especially in Asia, and is likely the leading reason that the Asiatic cheetah is extinct throughout the majority of Asia.

Today, there is still a high demand for cheetahs as pets. To meet this demand, cheetahs have to be illegally captured from the wild and then smuggled to the different parts of the world they are desired. When cheetah cubs are smuggled, only one of in six survives the journey, therefore requiring even more cubs be captured from the wild to meet the demand. The illegal trade in cheetahs is a significant contributor to the cheetah’s population decline and endangerment.

The cheetah's genetics

About 12,000 years ago, a mass extinction occurred that eliminated 75 per cent of the world’s large mammal species. Fortunately, a handful of cheetahs managed to survive this extreme extinction event and were able to restore the world’s population of cheetahs.

This event caused an extreme reduction of the cheetah’s genetic diversity, known as a ‘population bottleneck’, resulting in the physical homogeneity of today’s cheetahs. Poor sperm quality, focal palatine erosion, susceptibility to the same infectious diseases, and kinked tails characteristic of the majority of the world’s cheetahs are all ramifications of the low genetic diversity within the global cheetah population. In addition, cheetah show difficulty in captive breeding and a susceptibility to disease.

Suitable levels of genetic diversity are vital to a population’s ability to adapt and overcome environmental changes and unexpected disasters. When habitat is destroyed and fragmented, the rate of inbreeding increases, which leads to even more reduction in genetic diversity. The coupling of these factors increases the risk of environmental variability to the world’s cheetah population.