The global wild population of the world’s fastest land animal may be as low as 7,000 individuals, new research has concluded. Scientists have called for more “landscape-level efforts” to protect cheetahs because they are more vulnerable to going extinct than previously realised. Dr Sarah Durant – speaking to us from the West African state of Benin where she is working on a joint ZSL/ Panthera project to establish how many cheetahs there are in the W-Arli-Pendjari ecosystem in the north of the country – said the species posed unique problems for conservationists. “Because they need such large tracts of habitat – much more than lions, for example -their survival depends on their existence outside as well as inside protected areas,” Durant said. “Serengeti National Park alone supports a population of more than 3,000 lions, nearly half the remaining global cheetah population.”
One of the key problems for cheetahs is overhunting of their prey. In Zimbabwe, numbers have crashed from 1,200 to 170 individuals in 16 years, a decline of 85 per cent. “The land reform programme and the economic recession that followed reduced opportunities for wildlife-based land use,” Durant said. “The unsustainable use of natural resources, with more people resorting to hunting for protein to supplement their diets, is another problem.”
The stronghold for the species is still southern Africa (especially Botswana and Namibia, where about 70 per cent are found), and to a lesser extent, East Africa Populations also persist in West and North Africa – for example, Algeria, Benin, Burkino Faso and Chad, though the total population in Benin may be as few as 25. The nature of cheetahs means there are many areas in this part of the range where their presence is suspected but not proven, but discovering new populations would not drastically change the overall picture. “In the Sahara, we documented densities as low as one per 4,000km2,” Durant pointed out.