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In 16 years, Zimbabwe lost 85 percent of its cheetahs, the study found. (Photo: Zoological Society of London)

Global Cheetah Population 'Crashing,' Raising Risk of Species Extinction

Just 7,100 cheetahs remain around the world

Deirdre Fulton

Cheetahs "could soon be lost forever," with a new study showing their numbers "crashing globally" as a result of habitat loss and fragmentation, illegal poaching, and other human-caused threats. 

The study, led by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), Panthera, and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), reveals that just 7,100 cheetahs remain around the world—mostly in Africa, with a small pocket of about 50 individuals in Iran. Furthermore, the world's fastest land mammal has been driven out of 91 percent of its historic range, according to the study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and considered the most comprehensive species analysis to date.

Its authors are pointing to the findings as evidence that the cheetah should be moved from 'Vulnerable' to 'Endangered' on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)'s "Red List" of threatened species. 

"We've just hit the reset button in our understanding of how close cheetahs are to extinction, said Panthera's Cheetah Program director, Dr. Kim Young-Overton. "The take-away from this pinnacle study is that securing protected areas alone is not enough. 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."

The news comes on the heels of a similarly concerning warning about giraffes, whose population was revealed this month to have "plummeted" by nearly 40 percent over the last 30 years. That loss, too, was attributed to fragmentation, whereby the world's creatures are isolated into "breeding pockets" that are in turn encroached upon by climate change and other dangers. 

"Nine small puddles will evaporate far more quickly than one big puddle, and so it is with life," wrote zoologist and author Jules Howard at the time. "It is the historic 'death-by-a-thousand-cuts,' writ large. Giraffes are just one striking addition to what is fast becoming a global phenomenon. It is the threat of fragmentation."

For the cheetah, whose home range can exceed 1,000 kilometers, fragmentation is especially devastating. In turn, scientists are calling for "an urgent paradigm shift in cheetah conservation, towards landscape-level efforts that transcend national borders and are coordinated by existing regional conservation strategies for the species."

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