The cheetah is poetry in motion, a blurred streak of graceful ferocity and fluid beauty. They threaten no man and kill only for food.
“But the world’s fastest animal is under threat from both fellow predators and ecological change,” wrote Karl and Katherine Ammann in their coffee-table book titled Cheetah, published in 1984 after their first visit to the Masai Mara National Reserve. Three decades later, things haven’t changed much for this enigmatic cat.
Unfortunately, like all species in the world, cheetah populations have crashed over the past century. At the start of the 20th century, the global population was estimated at 100,000 in the wild.
By the end of the century, it stood at 15,000 and in the first decade of the 21st century there were only at 7,500, a 50 per cent reduction in global population. The most recent International Union for the Conservation of Nature report shows that there may be as few as 6,600 cheetahs remaining in only 29 populations in all of Africa.
According to Mary Wykstra, founder of Action for Cheetah in Kenya (ACK), Kenya is the stronghold for the East Africa cheetah population.
“The Kenya cheetah population is critical to the survival of cheetahs in the wild,” she said. “We estimate between 800 and 1,200 adult cheetahs remain in about 75 per cent of their natural range in Kenya.
“Although there are cheetahs in Kenya’s national parks and reserves, the highest cheetah numbers, about 80 per cent are found outside protected areas. Throughout Africa, it is estimated that only about 1,800 cheetahs live inside of protected areas.”
“The greatest threat to cheetahs,” continued Ms Wykstra, “is land use change: This is true throughout their entire range. The cheetah is a wide ranging species with each cheetah requiring some 20-300 square kilometers. Although home ranges do overlap, the same amount of land that can support up to 800 lions can only support 30-50 cheetahs.”
According to Ms Wykstra, it is not just about the numbers being low, but also about the loss of contact between the cheetah populations.
When a population is reduced to 50 or less, the genetic variation is below a sustainable level. Throughout the cheetahs’ range, they are rapidly approaching unrecoverable pockets in populations.
Cheetahs are more than 99 per cent genetically identical, further risking their ability to recover from a genetic disease. When inbreeding occurs, reproduction decreases and diseases increase.