By BRANDON SAGLAM
Recently, on December 11, 2017, researchers affiliated with National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiative released a study in the journal PeerJ that provided data on cheetah populations which is beginning to worry scientists. The paper provided two estimates of the probable population of cheetahs within regions of Africa. Through the the analysis of over two million pieces of scientific data and 20,000 crowdsourced observations from tourists between 2010 and 2016, researchers counted that there are 3,577 free-ranging adults inhabiting 305,000 square miles of Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe. With that data, they then approximated that a similar buffer area of natural land could ideally be inhabited by another 3,250 cheetahs.This meaning that there are hopefully at least 6,800 African cheetahs.
The reason that this population size is so alarming is it is not only less than half of the estimate published in November 2016, but the population found is a severe decline from what had existed in Southern Africa in 1975. Back then, the population of cheetahs just in South Africa was counted to be around 15,000. This only makes the CCO’s census back in 2016 that predicted cheetah populations to decline by 53 percent to be much more perilous.
Currently, cheetahs are considered only vulnerable despite scientists calling for the species to be considered endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. If this were to happen, it would ensure that greater lengths would be taken to provide greater protection for cheetahs. Co-lead author of the study Florian Weise elaborated that if the cheetah is considered endangered, “it affords them a lot more protection on an international level, recognizing that the general population trend is downwards, it just generates a whole lot more attention for a species that has been listed vulnerable for a long, long time.” Cheetahs have been greatly impacted by human interaction as it has seen the alteration of more than 90 percent of the cheetah’s natural habitat. The species are being restricted to private sectors of land within only six countries, and only 18.4 percent of the South African cheetah’s range is internationally recognized as protected land, which is South Africa’s Kruger National Park. The issue that makes the loss of their territory so detrimental is that much of it is allocated for livestock and game production. Cheetahs die at a very high rate due to poachers, car collisions, starvation from heavy game hunting and from farmers who shoot cheetah in belief that it was a threat to their livestock. Founder and executive director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund Laurie Marker expressed that they “are all very concerned about these small populations outside of protected areas.”
The outstanding issue is that there is an existing precedent for global cheetah extinction. The Asiatic cheetah is the world’s most endangered big cat: fewer than 40 exist in the wild. The hopeful factor is that due to critical situation, the feline has received a large amount of attention in hopes to engender support for the growth of a larger population. This provides a great example that if cheetahs are treated more critically their severe decline and eventual extinction can be avoided.
The data found by researchers Varsha Vijay and Florian Weise is necessary for action to be made. However, the worry is that even if the cheetah receives the endangered label it could take around 10 years for any political legislation to protect cheetahs to be developed and implemented. This is extremely terrifying given it is unknown how severely the cheetah population could decline in this time.
There is hope, though. With the recent study, more attention will be brought to cheetahs in the upcoming future. With that, the hope is regulations can be made, cheetahs can be relisted and more can be educated on the plight of cheetahs, making rehabilitation of the cheetah population not just possible but something for scientists to strive for.