Losing the Cheetah
The legendary speed of the cheetah has not been enough
to outrun the forces working against its survival.
In just the past twenty-five years, the cheetah population
has declined from approximately 30,000 animals to the
current 12,000, with an estimated extinction date of
2015. How have these fabled animals, prized since Egyptian
pharaohs and Asian royalty kept them as pets, become
an endangered species? Tragically, several of the forces
of extinction have lined up against the cheetah:
Population risk. Cheetahs have very large territorial
ranges-- from 800 to 1500 square km. This can result
in individual animals getting cut off from each other,
which leads to year-to-year variations in finding a
Environmental risk. Drought is all too common in the
areas of Africa where the cheetah is found, and the
resulting fluctuations in availability of its main
prey-- the small antelope-- affect its survival.
Genetic risk. Today's cheetahs are descended from the
relatively small population that survived the massive
mammalian extinctions of 10,000 years ago. That genetic
bottleneck has resulted in only a 1% genetic diversity
among cheetahs- making them as closely related as twins-
and thus more vulnerable to risks because of the lack
of genetic variety.
Human actions. As African populations increase, and
farms and livestock ranches extend into its territories,
the cheetah finds itself in much the same position
as the wolf in the American West- hunted to near extinction
as farmers and ranchers try to protect their herds.
So, as humans modify the cheetah's habitat by encroaching
on it, they in turn are forced to hunt it. In addition,
some sport hunting continues.
Fortunately, other human actions are actually helping;
a particularly diverse set of conservation efforts
includes the following:
- Conservation biologist Laurie Marker used her experience
at an Oregon wildlife park to move to Africa and start
the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), transforming old
farm buildings near a Namibia game reserve into a research
and education center. She worked with local farmers
and ranchers to help stop their killing of the cheetahs,
including giving them guard dogs to keep cheetahs away
- The DeWildt Cheetah Research Center has had some success
breeding cheetahs in captivity.
- The Cheetah Action Trust is trying to get more land
for conservation areas, using "dehumanizing"
techniques such as demolishing old houses, fences,
and roads to recreate a more natural habitat.
If the goal is to keep this wild species in its natural
habitat, all of these efforts and more will have to
work to push back the extinction deadline of 2015.
Hawthorne, Peter. 2000. "Cheetahs on the Run,"
Time, April-May, p.31.
Urbaniak, Joseph. 1998. "Cheetah Conservation in
Wilson, E. O. 2000. "Vanishing Before Our Eyes,"
Time, April-May, pp. 29-30.