Speed alone can't save the cheetah
About 10,000 roam the wilds of Africa. Conservation programs are coordinating efforts to boost that number.
Duma does not run when Brian Jones opens the gate. Rather, he ambles lazily, casting a bored glance at his sister, Letoatse.Skip to next paragraph
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"Hi, Duma!" Mr. Jones coos, and Duma pads a little closer – although never making eye contact – and stretches, plopping down next to a thorn tree. Jones scratches him behind one tan ear, and Duma purrs.
"You can pet him," Jones says. "But we don't let kids go in here. He seems to take an overactive interest in young people."
This, in fact, is one of the key lessons Duma and Letoatse can impart from this acres-wide enclosure in Botswana's Mokolodi Nature Reserve, says Jones: Cheetahs, some of the world's most endangered cats, are going to act like the predators they are. But if humans understand that, and respond accordingly, there doesn't have to be conflict.
"A lot of people consider the cheetah a pest," says Jones, a long-term volunteer with the Cheetah Conservation Botswana program, a four-year-old group formed to help the beleaguered species. "If a village loses livestock, and they see a cheetah, they'll kill it. We're trying to change the mind-set."
Many environmentalists say cheetahs, the oldest of Africa's big cats and the fastest land mammal on earth, are in danger of extinction. The cheetah population has dropped by about 90 percent over the past century, in large part because of habitat destruction and conflict with farmers, who say they shoot the cats to protect their livestock. Today, some 10,000 cheetahs live in Africa – about half in Botswana and Namibia. A handful also live in Iran.
But advocates for the species say they believe they have a real opportunity to slow – and in some places even reverse – the cheetah's decline. Over the past decade, the number of cheetah conservation organizations has expanded, and the groups have increasingly coordinated their efforts. They say more people seem to be taking note of the cheetah's precarious situation – in the United States and Europe, for sure, but more important, in the handful of countries where cheetahs still live in the wild.
"We've seen a lot of shifts in attitudes in Namibia as well as in Kenya where we've worked so extensively," says Laurie Marker, founder of Namibia's 18-year-old Cheetah Conservation Foundation. "We've seen a lot of wake-up attitudes in South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, and even changes in North Africa and Iran."
Relief for the cheetah would send hopeful signs about the state of some of the world's last true wildernesses, conservationists say. But the cat is by no means out of harm's way, they say.
"If there's pressure on an ecosystem, they're the first you're going to see it with," says Charles Knowles, the executive director of the Wildlife Conservation Network, which funds conservation entrepreneurs and groups. "Cheetahs serve as a good indicator species for predators in an ecosystem. If you can make it healthy for a cheetah, you're going to make it healthy for everyone."
Fast hunters lack versatility
A close look at Duma shows what makes the cheetah so unusual for the cat world.