Photo: John Mountjoy / Flickr

For the second time in the span of a year, scientists are calling for cheetahs to be placed on the IUCN’s endangered species Red List, after a new survey found that the world’s largest population of cheetahs is probably smaller, and more vulnerable, than previously recognized.

Almost exactly a year ago, a major analysis sounded the alarm that cheetahs were racing toward extinction. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, estimated there are only 7,100 cheetahs left on Earth, confined to just nine percent of their historical range. Cheetah populations have declined precipitously over the years due to poaching, habitat loss, and increased human-cheetah conflicts.

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Fast forward a year, and, well, things haven’t gotten better. In fact, for the largest free-ranging cheetah population on Earth, the situation may be a bit worse than we thought, according to a new population survey supported by the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative.

“There is a contiguous, transboundary population of cheetah in southern Africa, known to be the largest in the world. We suggest that this population is more threatened than believed,” the authors write in the study published Monday in the journal Peer J.

Combining telemetry data for collared cheetahs and nearly 20,000 field observations, the authors estimated that there were 3,577 free-ranging cheetahs spread across nearly 800,000 square kilometers (300,000 square miles) of habitat in Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, from 2010 to 2016. That’s 11 percent fewer cheetahs than the IUCN, which lists the species as vulnerable, currently estimates for southern Africa.

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While this may not sound like a huge discrepancy, the study points out that more than half of southern Africa’s cheetahs are concentrated into two ecoregions—the Kalahari Xeric Savannah in southern Botswana and southeastern Namibia, and the Namibian Savannah Woodlands. These regions overlap heavily with commercial and privately-owned farmlands, which carry a “high persecution risk” for cheetahs.

In heavily-grazed areas, cheetahs are often forced to hunt livestock due to fewer wild prey options. Farmers will sometimes kill cheetahs in retribution for doing so. The authors note that on 185 Namibian farms surveyed, 27 percent of land managers “actively persecuted cheetahs.” Fifty percent considered cheetahs to be the cause of conflicts.

The study found that only 18.4 percent of the cheetah’s current known free range in southern Africa lies within internationally-recognized conservation areas, and there are signs things are trending in the wrong direction. Botswana, for instance, plans to relinquish a significant chunk of its Wildlife Management Areas for expanded livestock production.

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“The continued large-scale conversion of conservation lands will almost certainly exacerbate conflict and negatively impact the southern African free-ranging cheetah population,” the authors write.

Uplisting the cheetah to ‘endangered’ would raise public awareness about the big cat’s perilous situation, and could nudge governments to craft more protective policies and fund additional conservation efforts. Still, it could take up to a decade for new conservation legislation to arise from a change in the cheetah’s listing, according to National Geographic.

In other words, if something isn’t done soon, it may be too late.

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