What Is The Cheetah?
The cheetah is a large feline species that is native to some areas of Iran and the eastern and southern regions of Africa, where it prefers savannas and scrub forests. It is easily recognized by its goldish-tan coat, black spots, and tear-like streaks running down the corners of its eyes. This species is the fastest land mammal in the world, reaching speeds of up to 70 miles per hour. While sprinting after its prey (primarily antelopes and gazelles), the cheetah actually spends more time with its feet in the air than on the ground. Cheetah offsprings have a higher mortality rate than other mammals of the same region. This article takes a closer look at the conservation status, threats, and global population of the cheetah.
Conservation Status Of The Cheetah
Cheetahs could once be found across all of Africa, eastern India, the Arabian Peninsula, and Asia. A little over 100 years ago, research indicates that the global cheetah population was more than 100,000. Today, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed this species as vulnerable, although many organizations are pushing for it to be changed to endangered. The cheetah population has experienced a dramatic decline over the last century due to a number of factors and is currently estimated at around 7,100 in the wild and under 8,000 in total (including those held in captivity).
Threats To The Cheetah Population
The first and principal cause of this population decline is attributed to the unsustainable hunting that occurred during the 20th century. Today, the global cheetah population decline continues due to a several factors, including: the illegal wildlife trade, habitat loss, and human contact.
Capture As Pets
Because of their unique appearance and historical association with wealth and power, cheetahs are highly sought after as pets. This species has difficulty breeding in captivity, therefore must be caught in the wild to be sold on the illegal, international pet market. Baby cheetahs, known as cubs, are targeted in this practice and less than 20% survive being smuggled around the world.
Cheetahs also suffer significant habitat loss in the form of degradation and fragmentation. This loss is due to urbanization and agricultural production, leaving them with insufficient resources for survival.
Humans threaten cheetah populations by more than just destroying their natural habitat. As cheetahs are pushed out of their territories and into human-occupied areas, conflict arises. In an attempt to protect their livestock, many people set traps or kill cheetahs, which they view as a threat.
Cheetah Population In The Wild
As previously mentioned, the current wild cheetah population is recorded as around 7,100. These cheetahs are divided into roughly 33 population groups, each with less than 100. Unfortunately, much of the wild cheetah population lives outside of protected parks and reserves. Even those that live within these protected areas, however, are threatened as well.
Cheetah Population in Africa
The majority of these wild cheetahs can be found in Africa and are concentrated within the southern and eastern regions of the continent. Today, the range of cheetahs in Africa has been reduced to an average of only 10% of the historic range. In eastern Africa, the territory of the cheetah is only 6% of the original. This 119,918-square mile area stretches across Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Uganda. In southern Africa, its range has been less affected, although it has been reduced to only 22% of its original state. This 472,353-square mile area is laid out across several countries, including: southern Zambia, northern South Africa, Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, Botswana, and Namibia.
Very small cheetah populations can be found in the Sahara Desert, although they are as scarce as there are only 2 to 3 cheetahs for every 3,900 square miles. The global cheetah population continues to decline. Over the last 16 years, for example, the population in Zimbabwe been reduced by 85%. According to research, cheetahs are now extinct in 11 of the 15 protected areas in west and central Africa.
Cheetah Population In Iran
In Iran, an even smaller population of cheetahs can be found. This particular species is known as the Asiatic or Iranian cheetah and it has suffered severe population decline over the last 50 years or so. In the 1970’s, for example, records indicated a population size of around 200. That number dropped to between 50 and 100 in the 1990’s and is currently thought to be around 82. Its historic range once stretched across the Arabian Peninsula, the Caspian region, Pakistan, and India. Today, it has been sighted in approximately 14 protected areas located in the eastern region of Iran. Because of this reduced territory and extremely small population size, it has been listed by the IUCN as critically endangered.
Cheetah Population In Captivity
Cheetahs have a long history of being held in captivity that dates back to the Sumerians over 5,000 years ago. These captive cheetahs were believed to be completely tame as there are few if any historical records of violent behavior toward humans. They were traditionally used as hunting partners, particularly in the Middle East during the 7th century AD, and would chase down prey after dogs flushed the prey out into the open. Cheetahs were also kept as pets by such famous figures as Genghis Khan and Akbar. Art from this time depicts these pets with decorative collars and leashes.
According to the 2008 version of the International Cheetah Studbook, 1,513 cheetahs are currently living in captivity. These animals are being kept at 262 locations in 48 different countries. Of these, around 680 are registered in zoos around the world with nearly 33% in zoos in North America. The number of cheetahs kept illegally as pets is harder to estimate with accuracy.
In an attempt to restore the global cheetah population, many organizations manage captive breeding programs. Reproduction rates, however, are low for cheetahs in captivity. Recent records indicate that only 38.6% of the captive population is known to have bred and reproduced successfully. Unfortunately, the captive breeding programs in North America report that the cheetah death rate has exceeded the birth rate in 10 of the last 12 years. For now, many of these organizations are focusing on making the captive population sustainable in order to expand to wild populations.
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