No animal on Earth can run faster than the Cheetah. But like a lot of African wildlife, Cheetahs are struggling to outpace the yawning abyss of extinction.
A new study in the leading journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, suggests that Cheetah numbers in the wild have collapsed to just 7,100 individuals. That's down from around 100,000 animals at the end of the 19th century.
Led by Sarah Durant of the Zoological Society of London, the study concludes that of 18 wild Cheetah populations still surviving in Africa, 14 are in decline.
In just the past 16 years, for instance, the number of Cheetahs in Zimbabwe has collapsed from 1,200 to just 170 animals.
Cheetahs today are estimated to survive in just 9 percent of their historic geographic range. In addition to Africa, Iran also has a tiny population of Cheetahs still clinging to survival.
Such dramatic declines in population size and geographic range are particularly worrying given the Cheetah's notable lack of genetic variation, which apparently resulted from a severe population bottleneck of the species around 10,000 years ago.
The intense inbreeding and genetic drift robbed Cheetahs of genetic variation -- making them virtual clones of one another -- and have resulted in a spate of genetic problems. Poor sperm quality, palate problems, susceptibility to infectious diseases, and kinked tails are all evident in Cheetahs today.
Because of such genetic problems, Cheetah populations could struggle to recover from population crashes, given the potentially poor fecundity and reduced survival often associated with low genetic variation.
Perils to African Wildlife
The authors of the recent study suggest that the large spatial requirements of Cheetahs and the complex spate of threats they face -- from habitat loss and fragmentation to poaching and declining prey numbers -- make them a challenging species to conserve.
The most urgent recommendation, say the authors, is to officially list the Cheetah as an Endangered Species. It is currently listed as Vulnerable.
Notably, researchers in Africa have recently argued that Giraffes merit much higher conservation status because their populations are also plummeting. That's along with other famously imperiled African species such as Elephants, Rhinos, and Gorillas.
Africa today is experiencing a tsunami of environmental changes because of its escalating human population, rapid habitat loss, explosive development of mining and new infrastructure, and intense pressures from illegal poachers.
The message is clear: Without concerted action by conservationists, much of Africa's iconic wildlife -- including the world's fastest land animal -- could lose its race for survival.