Only 7,100 cheetahs left in the wild
Race to save animal as study reveals extinction threat
Lounging in the shade of a tree, Heathcliff the cheetah oozes sleek grace and power, but he is captive behind a wire fence - perhaps the only way that cheetahs will exist in a few decades' time.
A major survey released last week revealed that just 7,100 adult cheetahs remain in the wild, and that the species faces extinction without urgent new protection measures.
At the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre outside Pretoria, South Africa, about 100 cheetahs are kept in large enclosures, where they roam through a scrubby bushveld landscape.
The fastest land animal on earth is critically vulnerable to the loss of its natural habitat - the major cause of numbers dropping from about 100,000 over the last 100 years.
Cheetahs have lost 90 per cent of their habitat due to growing human populations, according to the study, which produced comprehensive new data on the elusive species.
Forced into contact with people, cheetahs are shot by farmers to protect livestock or accidentally caught in snares set for edible bushmeat. Their cubs are illegally traded to the Gulf states as exotic pets.
"Cheetahs are forgotten among the big species under threat. It is very scary to see what is happening to the numbers," Ms Rita Groenewald, conservation education expert at the centre, told AFP.
"This report has highlighted the extent of the risk, which many people are not aware of.
"In one generation or two, we could lose the wild population. We need to educate people in schools, hunting associations and underprivileged communities."
Cheetahs adapt poorly to living in protected areas, such as wildlife reserves, as they range over huge distances, struggle with a shortage of prey and their young are easy targets for eagles, lions and hyenas.
The new study, published in a US journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, detailed how most cheetahs live outside protected areas.
"We have to try to develop programmes so that cheetahs can survive alongside people," Ms Laurie Marker, report co-author and one of the world's leading cheetah authorities, told AFP from her research base in Namibia.
Ms Marker has promoted better livestock management to reduce the mass killing of cheetahs by farmers in Namibia. She pioneered the use of large Anatolian shepherd dogs that live permanently with cattle herds.
Cheetahs are reluctant to take on the fierce Anatolians, and so they return to hunting in the bush.
Of the cheetahs still alive in the wild, all are in Africa (Namibia, Angola, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique) except for fewer than 50 in Iran. - AFP