Changing Planet

Cheetahs in southern Africa are closer to extinction than thought, National Geographic–supported research finds

A comprehensive assessment of cheetah populations in southern Africa supported by the National Geographic Society reveals the dire state of one of the planet’s most iconic big cats, the Society said in a news statement today. “In a study published today in the open-access journal PeerJ, researchers present evidence that low cheetah population estimates in southern Africa and population decline support a call to list the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatusas ‘Endangered’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, the news release said.

Supported in part by the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative, an international team of 17 researchers, led by Florian Weise of the Claws Conservancy and Varsha Vijay of Duke University, analyzed more than two million collared cheetah observations from a long-term study by the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research and another 20,000 cheetah observations from the research community and the general public, the Society’s statement added. The findings show that free-ranging cheetahs were present across approximately 789,700 square kilometers (about 300,000 square miles) in Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe between 2010 and 2016.

“This collaborative, multiyear effort sounds the alarm about the state of cheetah populations in southern Africa, shining a light on the imperative need to protect these majestic predators,” said Gary E. Knell, President and CEO, National Geographic Society. “The National Geographic Society is proud to support such a comprehensive assessment and similar efforts aimed at safeguarding our most precious species, their habitats and the planet we call home.”

The study estimates only 3,577 adult cheetahs exist in this extensive area, which is larger than France, and a majority (55 percent) of individuals are found within only two habitats. This estimate is 19 percent lower than the IUCN’s current assessment, supporting the call for the uplisting of cheetahs from “Vulnerable” to “Endangered.” A species assessed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the wild. Species assessed as Endangered are considered to be facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild. Decline in populations and the degradation or reduction of habitat are taken into account when determining a species’ assessment.

Early morning, a female cheetah (HNP002) uses a high vantage point to look for potential prey. Photo by Stéphanie Périquet

More details from the Society release:

A novel aspect of the research was the use of observations from the general public. “For a highly photogenic species like the cheetah, using crowd-sourced photographs and videos taken by tourists is an innovative and cost-effective approach, especially in well-visited protected areas,” said Florian Weise of the Claws Conservancy.

“This is the area with the largest population of free-ranging cheetahs left on Earth. Knowing how many cheetahs there are and where they occur is crucial for developing suitable conservation management plans for the species,” added Varsha Vijay of Duke University.

The study not only estimated the number of cheetahs in areas with confirmed sightings, but also identified places where it is possible for cheetahs to live but where they have not been recently observed. The authors used information about cheetah habitat and human and livestock densities to identify an area of possible cheetah presence almost as large as the confirmed cheetah range.

“To better understand this rare and elusive species, we need to complement the monitoring of confirmed populations with the investigation of possible cheetah habitat,” said Vijay.

This study also confirmed that the status of cheetahs on privately owned land is a pressing conservation issue. The researchers found that only 18.4 percent of cheetah range is within internationally recognized protected areas. Namibia exemplifies this, with much of cheetah distribution overlapping with areas of livestock and game production.

Interviews with some farmers who share their land with cheetahs showed that nearly half of those surveyed consider cheetahs a source of conflict (49.7 percent), while only a minority of farmers (26.5 percent) actively persecute (e.g., kill or trap) the species. Using population models informed by persecution data, the study found that even a few farmers persecuting animals can cause population declines, especially when reproductive conditions are not optimal.

“The future of the cheetah relies heavily on working with farmers who host these big cats on their lands, bearing the heaviest cost of coexistence,” said Weise.

Free-ranging male cheetahs checking their surrounds as they cross between farmland properties in central Namibia. Livestock and game farmlands support the majority of wild cheetahs in southern Africa and cheetah home ranges span across multiple properties. Photo by Florian J Weise

The authors conclude that the results of this study strongly support the recent call, led by the Range Wide Conservation Program for Cheetah and African Wild Dogs’ team at the Zoological Society of London, for the IUCN to uplist the cheetah from Vulnerable status to Endangered. This step would create awareness about the cheetah’s precarious situation and open more avenues to fund conservation and population monitoring efforts. Besides giving direction to further research, the authors provided an example of effective collaboration and transparent information sharing.

“By working together and reaching out to the public for assistance, conservationists can chart the way forward to help secure the future of the cheetah,” said Dr. Stuart L. Pimm, Doris Duke Chair of Conservation Ecology at Duke University and senior author of the study.

This study is the result of a collaborative, multiyear effort by 13 grantees and researchers from the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative: Florian J. Weise, Varsha Vijay, Andrew P. Jacobson, Rebecca Schoonover, Rosemary Groom, Jane Horgan, Rebecca Klein, Kelly Marnewick, Gus Mills, Esther van der Meer, Vincent van der Merwe, Rudie J. van Vuuren and Stuart L. Pimm. The Big Cats Initiative is a long-term commitment by the National Geographic Society to halt the decline of big cats in the wild through assessment activities, on-the-ground conservation projects and education.

Derek Keeping of the University of Alberta, Glyn Maude of Kalahari Research and Conservation and Jörg Melzheimer and Bettina Wachter of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research are co-authors of the paper.

Research Citation: Weise FJ, Vijay V, Jacobson AP, Schoonover RF, Groom RJ, Horgan J, Keeping D, Klein R, Marnewick K, Maude G, Melzheimer J, Mills G, van der Merwe V, van der Meer E, van Vuuren RJ, Wachter B, Pimm SL. (2017) The distribution and numbers of cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) in southern Africa. PeerJ 5:e4096 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.4096

The National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative supports scientists and conservationists working to save big cats in the wild. With your help, we’ve supported more than 100 innovative projects to protect seven iconic big cat species in 27 countries and built more than 1,600 livestock enclosures to protect livestock, big cats, and people. Together we’re helping big cats and communities thrive. Learn more about the initiative.

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Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn

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