Why Save The Cheetah from Extinction?
Because Apex predators balance the ecosystem
Cheetahs live primarily in grasslands and benefit the ecosystem by keeping the animals it hunts at healthy populations. Cheetahs, when possible, hunt the weak and slowest of several species of animals.
If cheetahs no longer existed, there would be a domino effect – referred to as a trophic cascade. There would be too many herbivores … a resulting loss of vegetation … more soil erosion … less water in the fields … and a negative impact on the health of the ecosystem.
In Africa, 77% of cheetahs live outside protected areas
This is because protected areas contain other larger predators, all of which compete with cheetahs for prey and will prey on cheetah cubs. Most cheetahs live in open areas and private farms, making them vulnerable to conflict with humans.
Cheetahs have a narrow gene pool
One disease can wipe out a whole population. There are 31 remaining populations, of which 20 populations have fewer than 100 cheetah. This fragmentation and isolation makes cheetahs genetically vulnerable.
Why Cheetahs are Threatened
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 per cent of their historic African range and are extinct in their Asian range except for a small population in Iran of about 50 individuals.
There are 33 populations of cheetah across 19 African countries and Iran. It is estimated that 50 per cent of total cheetah population lives in Southern Africa. There are 20 population with less then 100 cheetah, making them very genetically vulnerable due to fragmentation and isolation. Furthermore, 77 per cent of the cheetah lives outside protected areas, and therefore more vulnerable to human-wildlife conflict.
The threats facing the cheetah are similar to those facing many other species fighting extinction.
Cheetahs require vast expanses of land with suitable prey, water, and cover sources to survive. The cheetah’s movement across large areas of land depends on the availability of corridors and landscapes that are connected. As wild lands are destroyed and fragmented by human development and expansion, the cheetah’s available habitat is diminished. Numerous landscapes across Africa that could once support thousands of cheetahs now struggle with far fewer numbers.
Restoration of habitat, ensuring balance in the predator-prey ratio, and protection of the ecosystems are all efforts that are needed to address these threats.
Surprisingly, cheetahs do not fare well in protected areas like national parks and wildlife reserves. This is because these areas normally contain high densities of other larger predators like the lion, leopard, and hyena, all of which compete with cheetahs for prey. Given the opportunity, they will also prey on cheetahs. In these areas, cheetah cub mortality can be as high as 90%. As a result, nearly 90 per cent of cheetahs in Africa live in open areas and on private farmlands and therefore often come into conflict with people.
These lands are historically the ranges of cheetah. But livestock have replaced the cheetah’s natural prey, fueling human-cheetah conflict. Cheetahs are killed in retaliation for livestock predation or because of their perceived threat to human livelihood.
The farmer acts to protect his resources, often trapping or shooting the cheetah. Research estimates that cheetahs are only responsible for as little as 3 per cent of predation however they are blamed for much more since they are more visible to the farmer during the day.
The cheetah’s genetics
About 12,000 years ago, a mass extinction occurred that eliminated 75 per cent of the world’s large mammal species. Fortunately, a handful of cheetahs managed to survive this extreme extinction event and were able to restore the world’s population of cheetahs.
This event caused an extreme reduction of the cheetah’s genetic diversity, known as a ‘population bottleneck’, resulting in the physical homogeneity of today’s cheetahs. Poor sperm quality, focal palatine erosion, susceptibility to the same infectious diseases, and kinked tails characteristic of the majority of the world’s cheetahs are all ramifications of the low genetic diversity within the global cheetah population. In addition, cheetah show difficulty in captive breeding and a susceptibility to disease.
Suitable levels of genetic diversity are vital to a population’s ability to adapt and overcome environmental changes and unexpected disasters. When habitat is destroyed and fragmented, the rate of inbreeding increases, which leads to even more reduction in genetic diversity. The coupling of these factors increases the risk of environmental variability to the world’s cheetah population.