Introduction to the Cheetah
Many people fear predators, especially big cats such as the lion, cheetah, and leopard. We are often taught to fear carnivores without understanding their unique behaviors, special adaptations, and essential roles in the maintenance of healthy ecosystems.
Our attitudes and misconceptions about these species have led to their endangerment because many people deal with their fear by eliminating predators. Endangered species exist in low-population numbers and need intensive long-term management in order to survive. Attitudes toward predators must be changed if we hope to save endangered species such as the cheetah. By learning the reasons why species are endangered, we can all learn how healthy ecosystems are crucial and what will occur if we continue to pollute the environment and destroy habitats. Through environmental education, we can all work together to change the attitudes and behaviors that have led to the endangerment of predator species and help save them from extinction. Individuals can make a difference!
To appreciate predators, we must first understand their roles in wildlife communities. Because predators must kill other animals in order to survive, many myths about them have evolved over the centuries in many cultures. The plight of cheetahs symbolizes the problems that many predators face throughout the world. Cheetahs are endangered because of:
- Loss of habitat and prey to commercial/free-hold farming and development
- Prosecution by farmers as vermin or livestock-killing conflict animals
- Poaching or the illegal taking of an animal
If we are to conserve healthy wildlife populations in the 21st century, we must understand the ways of animals and recognize their importance to our survival. Wild species maintain healthy ecosystems, provide us with food, shelter, and clothing, benefit us economically and improve the qualities of our lives by their existence.
Read this great article published by The Oceanography Society explaining the importance of predators in their eco-systems. Click on the link. http://tos.org/oceanography/issues/issue_archive/issue_pdfs/23_2/23-2_dybas.pdf
Humans are also predators and carnivores. We compete with wild animals for natural resources. Because of growing human populations and over-consumption of the earth's resources, the world is losing wild places and species as the demand for food, minerals, lumber, and other resources increase. Two hundred years ago there were fewer than one billion people living on the planet. Today, over six billion people live on the planet.
Extinction is a natural process. For hundreds of millions of years, plants and animals have become extinct. But the current rate of extinction is something new and radical. The total number of species lost each year may now be as high as 40,000. This rate of extinction is far greater today that at any other time in the past 65 million years. The five most common causes of extinction created through human involvement are:
- Destruction of habitat for development and to obtain lumber, minerals, oil, and other products
- Introduction of exotic species into new habitats
- Overuse of animals and plants through collecting, hunting, or poaching
- Use of animals and plant products for religious beliefs
The cheetah's survival depends on people and our ability to manage the wild population and protect its habitat.
When people destroy habitat by constructing buildings or over-grazing livestock, for example, they prevent nearly all animal populations from surviving there, both in the present, as well as the future. Animals compete poorly with humans for space. Humans normally change the environment very rapidly; animals cannot always adjust to these changes or adapt quickly enough. Large predators like the cheetah need large areas in which to roam; they usually are not found close together or in great numbers. Loss of habitat and a limited geographical range (a small area in which to live) threaten the cheetah's survival.
Low survivorship (few cheetahs live long or do not become adults) also affects cheetahs and makes them more vulnerable to human competition. High cub mortality, up to 90% in the wild, along with high adult mortality by indiscriminate killing by farmers, makes it difficult for the cheetah to recover when its population size decreases.
Helping predator species survive in spite of competition from people is one aspect of wildlife conservation. Loss of habitat and prey base, competition with large predators and agricultural interests, and poaching are taking a heavy toll on wild cheetah populations throughout Africa.
Today, there are approximately 10,000 of these endangered cats remaining in Africa and Asia. The vast majority of cheetahs live in small, isolated groups outside protected game reserves where they are often in conflict with humans and livestock, and most populations continue to decline. The largest wild population of cheetahs is found in Namibia. In the 1980s their numbers were reduced by half to less than 2500. Lack of genetic variation, reproduction abnormalities, high infant mortality, and a great susceptibility to disease place the species at a further risk of extinction. Genetic variation allows species to adapt better to environmental and ecological changes and to fight off diseases.
While cheetahs were once found all over Africa, they are now endangered in most of their former ranges. Cheetahs do not pose a threat to human life. People continue to kill cheetahs because they believe cheetahs kill livestock as well as other domestic animals, causing excessive economic loss. In reality, the amount of damage to domestic stock is exaggerated and is usually caused by a limited number of livestock-preying cats, or "conflict" animals, and inadequate livestock practices. Despite these problems, cheetahs do have a chance for survival on the vast farmlands of southern Africa.
Humans share this earth with up to 33 million animals, plants and other life forms. The diversity of life on our planet is amazing. All species - plants, mammals, insects, and invertebrates - depend on one another. People depend on many different plants and animals for food and medicines. Cheetahs are only one of 33 million species living on the planet. Does it really matter if the cheetah becomes extinct? It is tempting to think that the loss of only one species will not affect us. But we must remember that all things are connected and explore how important cheetahs are in their ecosystem. When we lose even one species, our world becomes a poorer place to live. The cheetah deserves a place on this earth. The cat has been revered by humans for almost 5,000 years. If it is lost to future generations, it would leave a large hole not only in nature, but also in the very psyche of the human mind, which so naturally feels and knows the uniqueness of this creature. Namibia, with its varied ecosystems and diversity of life, presents the greatest hope for the cheetah's future.
Education is Key
Youth education and understanding are paramount to helping the sleek hunter of Africa win its race for survival. The ultimate success of the Cheetah Conservation Fund's education program depends on us all, but especially those of you who are teachers and students. By supporting our work you become part of an international effort to save this endangered species. Together we can work to conserve our world's rich biological diversity. By participating in environmental education, you become someone who cares for our land, its wildlife, and the future your students will inherit. We offer a CCF Teachers' Resource Guide and Student Activity Guides available for download from our Education page. These contain sections on life sciences, social studies, English, math, physical education and the arts. We hope they will help you motivate students to think critically about individual and communal efforts to conserve wildlife, and to act constructively to improve our world's environment.
Note regarding Namibia's Cheetah Population Changes 1980's-1990's: In Namibia, there was a drastic decline of the cheetah population in the 1980's where the population was halved in a 10 year period, leaving an estimated population of less than 2,500 animals at the beginning of the 1990's when CCF began its work with the farming community. Since that time, a gradual change has occurred within Namibia and over the last couple of years the population has stabilized. CCF's research has shown that farmers have more tolerance for cheetahs and are killing less, and those that are being killed are linked to livestock losses, or that they are calling CCF to help them.