Race For Survival

Graph of cheetah population

Cheetah population in fast decline

Cheetahs once ranged across the entire African continent, except for the Congo Basin, and into Asia from the Arabian Peninsula to eastern India. Today, cheetahs are found in only 23% of their historic African range and are extinct in their Asian range except for a small population in Iran of about 100 individuals.

The Problem

Past and present cheetah range map

Click to see larger map

As with all other species fighting extinction, the problem facing the cheetah is complex and multifaceted. However, most of the reasons for the cheetah’s endangerment can be grouped into three overarching categories:

  1. Habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation
  2. Human-wildlife conflict
  3. Illegal wildlife trade

Habit Loss, Fragmentation, and Degradation

Cheetahs require vast expanses of land with suitable prey, water, and cover sources to survive. As wild lands are destroyed and fragmented by the human expansion occurring all over the world, the cheetah’s available habitat is also destroyed, fragmented, and degraded thus reducing the land’s carrying capacity (number of animals an area can support) of cheetahs and their prey. Numerous landscapes across Africa that could once support thousands of cheetahs now struggle to support just a handful.

Human-Wildlife Conflict

In protected areas like national parks and wildlife reserves, cheetahs do not fare well as these areas normally contain high densities of other larger predators like the lion, leopard, and hyena, all of which compete with cheetahs for prey and will kill cheetahs given the opportunity. In such areas, the cheetah cub mortality can be as high as 90%. Therefore, roughly 90% of cheetahs in Africa live outside of protected lands on private farmlands and thus often come into conflict with people.

When a predator threatens a farmer’s livestock, they also threaten the farmer’s livelihood. The farmer of course acts to protect his resources, often trapping or shooting the cheetah. Because cheetahs hunt more during the day, people see them more often than the nocturnal predators and are therefore blamed for livestock kills they are not responsible for. This, coupled with the fact that the majority of cheetahs live on private farmlands, results in a high rate of persecution on the cheetah, making human-wildlife conflict one of the leading causes of the cheetah’s endangerment.

Illegal Wildlife Trade

For thousands of years, the ancient world’s rich and royal kept cheetahs in captivity. The pharaohs of Ancient Egypt kept cheetahs as close companions. Italian nobles, Russian princes, and Indian royalty used cheetahs for hunting and as a status symbol for their wealth and nobility. Because cheetahs do not breed well in captivity, they had to be caught from the wild to support this exorbitant demand, which wreaked havoc on cheetah populations, especially in Asia, and is likely the leading reason that the Asiatic cheetah is extinct throughout the majority of Asia.

Today, there is still a high demand for cheetahs as pets. To supply this demand, cheetahs have to be illegally captured from the wild and then smuggled to the different parts of the world they are desired. Out of all the cheetah cubs smuggled, only one of in six survives the journey, therefore requiring even more cubs be captured from the wild to meet the demand. The illegal trade in cheetahs is therefore a significant contributor to the cheetah’s population decline and endangerment.