The world’s fastest land animal, the cheetah, is sprinting towards extinction, a new study has warned and called for urgent conservation actions to save the big cats.
The study, published in the U.S. journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, estimated that the cheetah’s population has declined to just 7,100 globally, which are now confined to nine percent of the animal’s historic range.
Asiatic cheetah population has been hit hardest, with fewer than 50 individuals remaining in one isolated pocket of Iran, according to the study by the Zoological Society of London, Panthera and Wildlife Conservation Society.
Zimbabwe has seen the cheetah’s population fall from 1,200 to a maximum of 170 animals in just 16 years, largely due to pressures on wildlife and their habitat outside of protected areas, said the study.
As a result, the researchers urged that the cheetah should be uplisted from “Vulnerable” to “Endangered” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.
Sarah Durant of the Zoological Society of London and lead author of the study said this study represents the most comprehensive analysis of cheetah status to date.
“Given the secretive nature of this elusive cat, it has been difficult to gather hard information on the species, leading to its plight being overlooked,” Durant said in a statement.
“Our findings show that the large space requirements for cheetah, coupled with the complex range of threats faced by the species in the wild, mean that it is likely to be much more vulnerable to extinction than was previously thought.”
According to the researchers, even within guarded parks and reserves, cheetahs still face threats of human-wildlife conflict, prey loss due to overhunting by people, habitat loss and the illegal trafficking of cheetah parts and trade as exotic pets.
To make matters worse, as one of the world’s most wide-ranging carnivores, 77 percent of the cheetah’s habitat falls outside of protected areas, which makes the animal especially vulnerable to human pressures.
The researchers called for “a holistic conservation approach,” including incentivizing local communities and trans-national governments to protect cheetahs and promoting sustainable human-wildlife coexistence.
“The take-away from this pinnacle study is that securing protected areas alone is not enough,” said Kim Young-Overton, cheetah program director of the wild cat conservation group Panthera.
“We must think bigger, conserving across the mosaic of protected and unprotected landscapes that these far-ranging cats inhabit, if we are to avert the otherwise certain loss of the cheetah forever.”