By JAMES GORMAN
The cheetah, as swift as it is in the hunt, will not be able to outrun the threats to its survival without new conservation efforts, according to an international team of researchers who reported their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
They found that the threat to cheetahs, which now number about 7,000 worldwide, had been underestimated because of a focus on groups of the cats living in protected areas like parks and refuges. The team called for the International Union for Conservation of Nature to change the cheetah’s status from vulnerable to endangered, indicating the serious danger for the species.
The Wildlife Conservation Society, the Zoological Society of London and Panthera led the study, and many other conservation groups participated. Sarah M. Durant, a conservation scientist affiliated with the wildlife and zoological societies, and the lead author of the report, says the heart of the problem is that three-quarters of the territory where the cats live in Africa and Asia is unprotected. In those areas, the cheetahs suffer from loss of habitat, the animals they prey on are often hunted for bushmeat, and young cats are captured for sale as pets.
The possibility of precipitous decline in those areas is clear, Dr. Durant said. The report cites the case of Zimbabwe, which lost 85 percent of its cheetahs from 1999 to 2015. The number of cats dropped to no more than 170 from about 1,200.
The major difficulty in cheetah conservation is that the animals range across large expanses of terrain, crossing the boundaries of refuges and nations. A dense population of cheetahs, Dr. Durant said, would be two animals for every 38 square miles. The lowest concentration of the cats found, she said, was one per 1,500 square miles. And they share the land with “some of the most marginalized people in the world,” poor farmers and herders, she said.
The reclassification of the cats as endangered is one step, Dr. Durant said. But a whole new approach to their conservation is necessary, she proposed, saying that incentives must be provided to people to protect the cheetah across national and regional boundaries.
Dr. Durant suggested that the economic benefits of ecotourism and direct rewards for reducing poaching could be possible incentives. “I’m not pretending this is simple,” she said. “But I think we have no choice if we’re going to protect a species like this.”
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