A young cheetah feeds on a fresh kill in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Because of the cheetah's sensitivity to habitat change and other foes, they are under severe threat of extinction. Picture: Ian Landsberg
Johannesburg – An excited yell of “there!” reaches your ears as you look through the blades of long grass, trying to spot a cheetah that has stopped the game drive in its tracks.

You encourage your family to look and remind them that this could be one of the last times they ever see this in the wild.

If we don't start caring about our cheetah population, the only place our children and grandchildren may ever see one is on a visit to the zoo.

Like the giraffe population, the cheetah's numbers are also dwindling across the world and it may not be long before there are hardly any left in the wild or they have become extinct.

There are just 7100 left in the wild. According to co-ordinator of the Red List Project at the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) Matthew Child most of the cheetah’s range across Africa exists outside protected areas where there are more severe threats.

“They are declining in many African countries."

"For example, in Zimbabwe, they were estimated to have declined by 85% between 1999 and 2015 and have become extinct in many areas of West and Central Africa."

Child said there was model-based data which suggested the cheetah populations inside protected areas “supplemented” those outside.

“This is called ‘sink’ populations and if growth rates of the protected populations were to decline, the overall population would very rapidly move towards extinction.”

Worldwide, cheetahs are listed as vulnerable.

“The total population in South Africa is estimated to range between 1166 and 1742 animals."

According to Child, cheetahs are very sensitive to habitat loss and fragmentation because of their wide ranges and low densities and often come into conflict with livestock and game farmers.

“Such conflicts may be exacerbated in areas where the natural prey has been depleted due to bush meat hunting and agricultural or human settlement expansion."

"Cheetahs are also sometimes caught in snares intended for other species such as antelope,” he said.

The extensive illegal trade in cheetah cubs for the pet industry, especially to the Gulf states, was also adding to the crisis.

“Illegal removal of wild animals for the captive-breeding industry is an emerging threat to the species locally and may be causing declines, among other threats, in the free-roaming population,” he warned.

He said cheetahs were also often killed on roads, particularly those that cross border protected areas.

However, South Africa was the only country in the world where the cheetah population was still growing, he said.

Vincent van der Merwe, a cheetah metapopulation co-ordinator at the Carnivore Conservation Programme of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, said in South Africa the cheetah population increased from about 500 animals in 1965 to 1 175 animals today.

“The growth is because we have reintroduced cheetahs into 51 small fenced reserves across the country, making spaces for an additional 330 wild Cheetahs that are now managed as a metapopulation."

“There have also been major changes in land use in South Africa,” he said.

Van der Merwe also explained that with the switch from livestock farming to game ranching during the 1990s and 2000s, a large free-roaming cheetah population established itself on South Africa’s northern border with Botswana, and to a lesser extent on the western boundary of the Kruger National Park.

“Southern Africa is the conservation stronghold for cheetah, with an estimated 4 520 adult and independent adolescent wild cheetahs."

“Seventy-five percent of the wild cheetahs in Southern Africa occur outside of protected areas."

"East Africa supports an estimated 2 570 independent and independent adolescent cheetahs."

"According to the population in west, central and northern Africa is estimated at 450 individuals".

"In Asia there are only about 80 cheetahs left.”

According to the numbers supplied by the EWT the cheetah population is now extinct in countries that once had several hundred cheetahs like Mauritania, Chad, Mali and Cameroon.

In Ethiopia the population has more than halved while in Kenya the population has declined from 2 000 to 650 since 1975.

To combat the decline and to conserve the population that is left Child said cheetah conservation could rely on protected areas alone as they were wide-ranging species, with home ranges sometimes in excess of 3000km2.

“Incentives will need to be put in place to reduce human-wildlife conflict outside of protected areas and allow coexistence of cheetahs with agricultural communities."

“For example, the use of livestock-guarding dogs to protect livestock and game and reduce cheetah persecution,” he said.

Other ways he suggested include furthering development of trans-boundary or trans-frontier conservation areas, enhanced regional co-operation between conservation agencies and land use planning across large landscapes with multiple land-uses (agriculture, industry and settlements) to create habitat corridors between protected areas.

Child said in South Africa especially, legislation was needed to completely ban the movement of wild cheetah into captivity.

“This includes legal requirements to mark, trace and monitor captive-bred animals,” he emphasised.

Child added that if the cheetah was to persist in Africa, innovative solutions involving conservationists, local communities, governmental agencies and the private sector were required.

“The cheetah can become a symbol of harmonious, multifunctional and integrated landscapes if we get this right,” he concluded.

The Star