© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

As cheetah populations keep falling, scientists demand better protection

Ray Meibaum | Saint Louis Zoo
Cheetah populations have declined globally, despite conservation efforts.

Scientists are urging an international organization to reclassify the cheetah as an endangered species, given the animal's falling numbers. About 7,100 cheetahs exist in the world, mostly in Africa. But that is less than 10 percent of the animal's historic population. 

In the journal Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences, conservation experts reported that cheetahs are at greater risk of extinction than previously thought and are calling for increased protection of the species. The authors demand that the International Union for Conservation of Nature upgrade the cheetah's status from "vulnerable" to "endangered." It has been listed as vulnerable for three decades.

Changing the species' conservation status, co-author Sarah Durant wrote, would urge governments to enact policies and invest more resources towards helping cheetahs. 

Two cheetah cubs.
Credit Saint Louis Zoo
Most cheetahs live outside of protected areas.

Cheetahs require great expanses of land to roam and hunt, which puts them in conflict with expanding human development. Farmers, for example, will kill cheetahs in retaliation for preying on livestock. Losing the species could mean losing the ability to control populations of animals it preys on, such as antelopes, which can transmit diseases to livestock if they become too abundant. 

The study noted that designating protected areas for the big cats are not enough to help save them. About 77 percent of cheetahs live outside of such areas, which are not fenced. 

"If a cheetah or a lion or whatever that animal may be wanders outside of that protected area, a national park or reserve, there's a good chance that they're going to be threatened by humans living outside of that area," said Steve Bircher, curator of mammals and carnivores at the St. Louis Zoo, which is unaffiliated with the study. 

Bircher isn't opposed to giving the cheetah a higher protection status, but he said the conservation strategy should consider that some countries have more cheetahs than others. Namibia has the largest number of cheetahs, roughly 2,500. Other countries have a few hundred. It's estimated that Iran has only 50. 

"I think we need to take into consideration the wildlife authorities, the people who are most familiar with the species in their country," Bircher said. 

Bircher suggested that hunting could be a part of the solution. Carnivore hunting is legal in some African countries. 

Steve Bircher, the Saint Louis Zoo's curator of mammals and carnivores, does extensive work with conserving cheetahs in Africa.
Credit Saint Louis Zoo
Steve Bircher, the Saint Louis Zoo's curator of mammals and carnivores, does extensive work with conserving cheetahs in Africa.

"If [farmers and ranchers] know they can get a lot of money for someone coming in from Europe, America, whoever it may be, to hunt that species, and that goes back into proper management on those large farms and ranches, hopefully, they'll have sustainable populations," he said. 

Moreover, Bircher agrees with the study's authors that local community engagement is critical to helping cheetahs. The Saint Louis Zoo has surveyed communities to develop a database of cheetah sightings. The Ruaha Carnivore Project, one of the Saint Louis Zoo's partners, created a program a few years ago that hires local residents to keep track of cheetahs and lions. 

"In these countries, if [people] don't see some benefit in protecting their wildlife, it's probably not going to happen," Bircher said.

Follow Eli on Twitter @StoriesByEli

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.