Should cheetahs be added to the endangered list?

December 12, 2017, 4:02 p.m.
A cheetah sits perched on a rock in Kenya.
Photo: Volodymyr Burdiak/Shutterstock

The African cheetah may be fast, but this big cat species may be unable to outrun its dwindling population.

A team of researchers have accounted for 3,577 free-ranging adult cheetahs living across less than 305,000 square miles of Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe, an area that the study describes as roughly the size of France. Their findings have been published in the journal PeerJ.

With such a low number, the researchers are calling on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to change the cheetah's listing from vulnerable to endangered.

For their tally, the researchers used more than 2 million collared cheetah observations gathered during a study conducted by the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, as well as about 20,000 cheetah observations made by the research community and the general public between 2010 and 2016.

This number is less than half the number estimated in a study published in November 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," Gary E. Knell, the president and CEO of the National Geographic Society, said in a statement. "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."

Researchers think there's a buffer region that could support a few thousand more cats, one that could bring the population up to 6,800, but they aren't optimistic.

"We have a larger degree of certainty in the lower estimate because it is based on those areas where we have recorded estimates of cheetahs," study co-lead author Varsha Vijay from Duke University told National Geographic. "There is greater uncertainty in the higher estimate because it assumes the very optimistic scenario that all the areas we identified as potential cheetah habitat are occupied by cheetahs at similar densities to the areas with confirmed cheetah presence."

Changing the cheetah's IUCN designation would create awareness for the big cat's declining population and open up more opportunities for funding conservation and monitoring efforts.

Related on MNN: Why aren't the biggest animals also the fastest?