Disturbing news for cheetahs: a recent census reveals that populations have plummeted. The decline is greatest in the remnant Asiatic cheetah population, but the African population has also experienced a dramatic drop. The drop is so severe that the once secure cheetah is now in genuine danger of extinction in the wild. What happened? What is it about cheetahs that makes them so vulnerable?
The cheetah’s problems can, one way or another, be traced back to its size. A large male cheetah weighs in at around 130 pounds, half the size of an average female lion, and a third the size of an average male. Another rival, the spotted hyena, is similar in weight, but travels in clans of up to 80 individuals while the largest group of cheetahs (excluding cubs) is 2-3. Furthering their disadvantage, cheetahs are built for speed and stand no chance in a conflict. Both of these predators routinely steal cheetah kills, forcing cheetahs to waste energy on another hunt. Lions and hyenas will kill adult cheetahs, but cubs are especially vulnerable. Cheetah cub survival is only around 5% in East Africa’s Serengeti plains, largely due to lion predation.
The result is that cheetah ecology is structured around avoiding other predators. They follow wide ranging herds of Thomson’s gazelles (including outside park boundaries), their preferred prey, but avoid large herds which attract rivals. They either lay low or keep moving when rival predators are near. The combined result is that cheetahs, especially females, cover huge distances, far huger than protected areas can cover. Outside protected areas good habitat is rare.
The tight habitat requirements mean that cheetahs have always been scarce compared to other predators. Smaller, isolated populations can easily be driven extinct by rival predators. The remaining fragmented populations are vulnerable to the local lions.
There are other difficulties. Cheetahs tend to crowd together when conditions are favorable, leading to population overestimates. (The difficulty of ascertaining accurate cheetah population estimates helps explain why the decline took everyone by surprise.) Cheetah hunts are particularly vulnerable to disruption by tourists. Outside parks, cheetahs are often framed by leopards for livestock kills. The leopard makes a quick getaway in the dark, but when angry herders retaliate the next morning, they kill innocent cheetahs in the wrong place at the wrong time.
What to do? Educating tourists and local residents, and ending trophy hunting, will help. Ultimately, the biggest issue is giving cheetahs more space. Wildlife corridors are one possible avenue to pursue, but one way or another the land between protected areas needs to be suitable for both cheetahs and people. Without quick action, the world’s fastest mammal is speeding toward extinction.