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Why cheetahs are facing extinction and how you can help

Article by Jana Janse van Vuuren

Jana Janse van Vuuren

Posted: June 15, 2022

Gone in sixty seconds, the world’s fastest land mammal’s population is dwindling. With less than 6,700 of them left throughout Africa, the stopwatch is running down for cheetah conservation. Read on to find out more about cheetah conservation and how you can get involved.

The cheetah has evolved itself into a genetic bottleneck with an overspecialisation for speed. There are less than 6,700 cheetahs left throughout Africa and their evolution isn’t the only threat to their conservation. Cheetahs are iconic and some of the most exciting animals to watch in the wild and they stalk, chase and nab their prey, quickly devouring as much as they can before larger and much stronger predators muscle in to either steal from them, kill them or both. 

In this article, you’ll learn about cheetah’s survival, and how you can get involved in protecting this beautiful species.

 

A cheetah running in the wild

Are cheetahs endangered?

 

The Southern African cheetah is considered “vulnerable” and not “endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) Red List of Threatened Species.

But, in 2016, a group of researchers published a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the United States of America (PNAS), stating that the conservation status of the cheetah should be changed to “endangered” due to the significant drop seen in their population numbers.

 

What’s pushing cheetahs towards extinction?

 

According to the PNAS report, cheetah populations may be more vulnerable than previously thought. We’ve listed the five main reasons why below.

1) The migration of human beings to wild areas, and the overdevelopment that followed led to approximately 91% of cheetahs being hunted down or driven out of their natural habitat. 

Much later, national and private reserves were established in Southern Africa, which allowed for around 9% of the cheetah’s historical territory to be preserved.

2) Almost 77% of cheetahs live in unprotected areas where they often come into regular contact with humans. This means that they are regularly exposed to poaching, as well as the possibility of being caught by farmers trying to protect livestock.

3) Some private game reserves believe that cheetahs are not as much of a tourist attraction as the Big Five animals, like lions or elephants. This makes it more difficult to promote investing in cheetah conservation.

4) Cheetahs naturally face stiff competition in the wild from other predators, especially lions, and scavengers, like hyenas. In predator-dense areas, this has an impact on their survival.

5) Because cheetahs have been separated due to human development, the pool of individuals that are able to breed has been reduced. This has affected their genetic diversity, making them more vulnerable to diseases and genetic abnormalities. 

The aim of the Cheetah Metapopulation Project, which GVI contributes to, is to build on the genetic diversity of the cheetah population through effective wildlife management.

 

A cheetah watching the sunset

How many cheetahs are left in the world?

 

Today there are 6,674 mature cheetahs left in the wild.  Researchers believe that this small and decreasing number of cheetahs is because a large number of these animals live in unprotected areas.

 

Why are cheetahs important?

 

Along with other predators, cheetahs are responsible for keeping the antelope population in balance.  This in turn plays a vital role in maintaining the balance of the ecosystem. We still have so much more to learn about the world’s fastest land animal, and the role they play in African ecosystems. 

 

GVI game drive

 

How can I get involved in cheetah conservation?

 

Here are some of the best ways to get involved in cheetah conservation:

These types of efforts can go a long way in making an impact in cheetah conservation, and addressing the concerns that are affecting cheetah populations.

 

GVI’s  cheetah conservation research projects

 

A cheetah on patrol

Cheetah kill utilisation study

 

Learning more about how often cheetahs hunt and how much of the kill they actually consume gives us valuable information. 

For example, these findings help park managers to get a better idea of which efforts would be most effective in cheetah conservation.

In fact, in 2016, our then base manager in Limpopo, Richard Wilks, made an interesting observation. He noticed that cheetahs in Karongwe Private Game Reserve, which GVI partners with, seemed to abandon their kill often and very readily. 

His hypothesis was that because the park was a very predator-dense area, the cheetahs chose to abandon their kill instead of facing stronger predators. This finding had a significant impact on the management of the reserve. Why? 

The reserve management now knew that these cheetahs would need to kill more antelope in order to consume the amount of meat they needed to survive.

So, reserve managers working in predator-dense parks would need to ensure that there were more antelope in the park in order to maintain a healthy cheetah population.

The reserve management also started observing and tracking other aspects of cheetah behaviour. This helped them to see how many times cheetahs were securing a kill, as well as how much they actually ate before abandoning it. 

This research was informally known as the cheetah kill utilisation study. Today, the  project accepts volunteers from all over the world. It aims to contribute towards the data collection needed to reach a significant finding regarding cheetah kill and utilisation.

 

Limpopo Cheetah Dinner

 

Volunteers joining the project will be taught how to use charts specifically designed to determine whether a cheetah has fed recently, and how much of the kill has been eaten. 

They will learn how a rigorous conservation study like this is set up, the systems that need to be in place to ensure accurate data collection, and how this data is used to provide local and international partners with actionable insights.

As a volunteer, you’ll be contributing directly to cheetah conservation efforts. But, the skills you’ll learn on this project will also assist you in carrying out other wildlife conservation research projects across the globe. This means you’ll be making an impact and improving your employability at the same time. 

You’ll also be supported before, during and after your program by our support staff, base manager in Limpopo, as well as our science officer. These GVI staff members will assist you for the duration of your time on the project.  

 

Cheetah metapopulation project

 

In addition to contributing to the cheetah kill utilisation project, volunteers could also  get involved in the cheetah metapopulation project. This project forms part of research that’s taking place in the park we partner with. 

As a participant, you’ll be involved in activities that add towards our understanding of cheetah genetic diversity throughout Southern Africa – in both private and national parks.

Late in 2016, discussions around increasing the cheetah population in the park we work with began.  The park had one female, but no males, and they were looking to grow their cheetah population in the best way possible. 

Experts advised park managers against bringing in younger cheetahs who had grown up in areas where there weren’t many predators, like the Karoo. 

And, because cheetahs have a low genetic diversity, conservationists would need to actively manage the population.

The reason for this is that taking a cheetah from an environment with few predators, and placing it in an environment where there are many predators may mean that the animal will not be able to adapt to, or survive in its new surroundings. 

After careful consideration, the conservationists decided to introduce a coalition of male cheetahs. Although the males were from a less predator-dense area, they would be able to protect one another from larger predators, like lions. 

 

Two cheetahs relaxing

 

This group of brothers also had a different genetic makeup to the park’s female cheetah. And so, the cheetah population’s genetic diversity could be strengthened through breeding. 

And, because they learn from their elders, the resulting cubs would grow up to be vigilant of predators.

This study has exciting implications, because the findings can give reserve staff a much better idea of how to introduce new cheetahs successfully.

Previously, predator-dense reserves were reluctant to introduce cheetahs, due to their poor survival rate. So if it can be proven that this method works, more parks are likely to introduce additional cheetahs, which will help to increase the total cheetah population.

You can also join our other wildlife conservation programs in South Africa, like the two-week Wildlife Research in South Africa expedition. Or, if you’re under 18, the South African Wildlife Conservation teen program.

We also have two wildlife conservation internship opportunities available in South Africa. They are our  three-month internship, and our six-month internship – which includes a placement with a local partner.

Find out more about GVI’s cheetah conservation opportunities, and see how you can make an impact in the conservation of the world’s fastest land animal. 

We understand that you may have questions about how COVID-19 will affect your travel plans. Visit our FAQs page which explains our latest safety protocols in response to COVID-19. 

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