Scientists are warning that the cheetah, the fastest land animal, is rapidly heading towards extinction, with depleting habitats and poaching to blame for the plummeting numbers.
According to a report published in the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, an estimated 7,100 cheetahs remain in the wild across Africa and a small area of Iran, and human encroachment is to blame for pushing the cats out of 91 percent of their historic habitat.
The report said that cheetahs had been virtually wiped out in Asia, with fewer than 50 left in Iran.
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“This period is really crunch time for species like cheetah that need these big areas,” said Sarah Durant, a lead author of the report and cheetah specialist at the Zoological Society of London.
Researchers said that in addition to habitat loss, falling numbers could also be attributed to the illegal trade in cheetah cubs, the trafficking of cheetah skins, attacks from villagers and the loss of the cheetah’s prey.
The report recommended that the cheetah be defined as “endangered” instead of the less serious “vulnerable”, on an official watch list of threatened species worldwide.
In Zimbabwe, the cheetah population has dropped from an estimated 1,500 in 1999 to between 150 and 170, a group called Cheetah Conservation Project Zimbabwe said.
The group solicited cheetah photographs and reports of sightings from tourists, safari guides and others, and interviewed more than 1,000 people, including village heads and cattle managers.
Despite habitat loss across the continent, the Mara area in southwest Kenya and in the adjacent Serengeti National Park in Tanzania still offered a refuge, Femke Broekhuis, the head of the Mara Cheetah Project said.
Cheetah experts also noted that Angola was developing a plan to protect cheetahs and African wild dogs, and that could yield better data on cheetah numbers in a country where information has been thin.