Lightweight, aerodynamic and capable of hitting 60 mph (97 km/h) in just a few strides, no creature can cover ground quite like the cheetah. And not only is the world's fastest land animal mighty quick off the mark, it also happens to roam further than any other carnivore. But this spells trouble in a world where human activities continue to clash with vital wildlife habitats. A new study has revealed what all this means for the outlook of the cheetah, estimating the animal has conceded 91 percent of its traditional range and that just 7,100 remain as a result, prompting calls for urgent action to save it from the brink of extinction.

As it stands, cheetahs are listed as "Vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. But the new study, carried out by researchers from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and wild cat conservation group Panthera have led the authors to call for this to be quickly upgraded to "Endangered," a status that would bring a higher level of international conservation support.

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"This study represents the most comprehensive analysis of cheetah status to date," says Dr Sarah Durant, ZSL/WCS lead author. "Given the secretive nature of this elusive cat, it has been difficult to gather hard information on the species, leading to its plight being overlooked. Our findings show that the large space requirements for cheetah, coupled with the complex range of threats faced by the species in the wild, mean that it is likely to be much more vulnerable to extinction than was previously thought."

Looking after the cats within protected wildlife reserves is one thing, but safeguarding them once they roam beyond the borders is certainly another. The researchers say that 77 percent of the remaining cheetah habitat rests outside protected areas, where the animals are more susceptible to human impacts such as prey loss due to overhunting, habitat loss due to changes in land use and illegal trafficking of cheetah parts and cubs for exotic pets.

A BBC report earlier this year revealed the severity of this cruel form of wildlife trafficking, which involves entire litters being seized from their mothers and sold on the black market for as much as US$10,000 a cat. Cashed up buyers in the Arabian Gulf are often those to make the purchases, who then proceed to drape their new toys in sports colors and leashes and parade them around on social media. This appears even more senseless when considering numbers from the Cheetah Conservation Fund, which suggest around 1,200 cheetah cubs have been trafficked out of Africa over the past decade, with around 85 percent of them dying during the journey.

In Zimbabwe, this combination of factors has seen cheetah numbers dwindle from 1,200 to a maximum of 170 in 16 years, a population loss of 85 percent. The researchers say asiatic cheetahs have suffered the most, with fewer than 50 individuals remaining in an isolated pocket of Iran.

All of this has prompted the researchers to call for an urgent overhaul in cheetah conservation strategies. They say there is a need to work toward a holistic approach that goes beyond national borders and offers incentives for local communities to protect the cheetahs and promote sustainable human-wildlife coexistence.

"We've just hit the reset button in our understanding of how close cheetahs are to extinction," says Panthera's Cheetah Programme Director, Dr Kim Young-Overton. "The take-away from this pinnacle study is that securing protected areas alone is not enough. We must think bigger, conserving across the mosaic of protected and unprotected landscapes that these far-reaching cats inhabit, If we are to avert the otherwise certain loss of the cheetah forever."

The Zoological Society of London has released a collection of beautiful cheetah photographs to go with the announcement, which you can check out in the gallery. The research is to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: Zoological Society of London

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