Cheetahs are one of Africa’s most beautiful, and most endangered big cats. They are the fastest land animal in the world, running at speeds of up to 120km/h (75mph). That’s the same as the speed limit on South African freeways. Cheetahs are a charismatic species, that define the African Savannah, but they are deeply threatened. There were 14000 cheetahs in the 1970s. Now there are just 7000, with data indicating a further 50% decline could happen in the next 15 years.
Cheetahs are mainly in decline because of habitat loss. Cheetahs are now only found in 9% of their former range. The conversion of natural land to agriculture means cheetahs come into contact with humans much more regularly. Also, changes in the way people live off the land have increased the conflict between humans and cheetahs.
Tribes such as the San Bushmen in the Kalahari are able to live alongside cheetahs. They understand that cheetahs, the smallest of the big cats, do not pose a significant threat to them or their animals. Despite the fact that cheetahs very rarely kill livestock, ranchers still kill them as a precaution. Lions, for example, are a much bigger threat to livestock.
In the Horn of Africa, cheetah populations have been decimated. This is because Somalia is a major centre for the illegal wildlife trade in cheetahs. In Autumn 2018 11 cheetah cubs were rescued in raids by authorities in the autonomous region of Somaliland. The cheetah cubs were headed for the Middle East to be kept as pets. “The rising trade in cheetahs for luxury pets in the Middle East is helping to drive critical populations of wildlife to extinction in Somaliland and North and East Africa,” said Shukri Ismail, Somaliland’s environment minister. Cheetah cub mortality is already as high as 90% in the wild, wildlife trade compounds this problem.
Many conservationists regard cheetah populations in western and central Africa as beyond help. The main focus is on trying to protect cheetahs in Southern Africa. This is because this region has the largest population and so is the most viable in the long term. This is partly because of factors beyond human control. Cheetahs have very low genetic diversity. This is due to prehistoric events, but it means cheetahs are especially vulnerable in small populations.
The Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) is an organisation in Namibia working to protect that country’s cheetah population. Since 1994 they have been placing guard dogs on ranches. This has reduced livestock kills by 80-100%. The guard dogs are effective because they deter lions from raiding livestock. As a deterrent, they also take away the incentive for ranchers to kill cheetahs.
There are two key elements to protecting cheetahs. One is reducing the trade, the kidnapping of cubs from the wild and sale to places like Dubai. The other is working with ranchers to find ways of allowing ranching and cheetahs to live alongside each other.