The cheetah is the fastest animal on land—a fact that is often repeated, but seldom truly appreciated. When documentary-makers film cheetas, they typically go for low-angle close-ups that capture the creature’s majesty, but that underplay its speed. The BBC’s The Hunt bucked the trend last year with aerial shots that reveal just how fast the cheetah is.
Ed Yong, writing on the Atlantic’s website, refers to the video clip above with his opening paragraph of Cheetahs Never Prosper. The cat lays the table for its feast, in full speed, and then Mr. Yong shares some plain truths:
It’s astonishing. Even when the cheetah is forced to slow down—twice—it manages to regain ground, closing seemingly impossible gaps in a mere handful of strides. “In a flat-out race,” David Attenborough says, “nothing can outrun a cheetah.”
Except, perhaps, extinction.
The omnipresence of the cheetah in documentaries and the popular consciousness is deceptive. It suggests that the species is stable, perhaps even thriving. In fact, for the last 30 years, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List has classified the animal as “vulnerable”—the third of seven categories of risk that go from “least concern” to “extinct”. And now, a 54-person team of scientists and conservationists led by Sarah Durant from the Zoological Society of London says that even this bleak picture is too optimistic. After compiling the most comprehensive data set on the cat’s whereabouts and status, they think it’s worse off than is commonly claimed.
The team, whose members hail from 18 countries and include many top names in cheetah research, say that people have largely assessed the cheetah’s fate using data from national parks and other protected areas. But these are the places where the cat is safest, and they account for just a quarter of its range. After taking the unprotected regions into account, the team thinks that the IUCN should downgrade the cheetah by one step—from “vulnerable” to “endangered”.
The cheetah is one of the most wide-ranging of land predators. An individual’s home range can stretch for 3,000 square kilometers—roughly the size of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New Orleans combined. But it has been increasingly corralled into smaller and smaller areas, as its habitat gets sliced and fragmented by roads, farmland, fences, and other barriers. As I wrote in my elegy for giraffes, “As different populations become disconnected, each isolated pocket becomes dangerously vulnerable…
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