Evolving over 4 million years ago and able to employ breathtaking acceleration to achieve speeds of up to 110 km/h, the oldest of the African ‘big cats’ and the fastest land mammal on Earth is today engaged in a race against extinction.
Cheetahs are a marvel of evolution and physiology. Almost every element of a cheetah’s body has undergone evolutionary adaptations to enable them to run faster. Cheetahs’ specialised physiology limits their ability to compete with the more powerful carnivores (lion, leopard, spotted hyena) which are typically more numerous than cheetah in protected areas. To avoid competition, cheetahs have evolved to be diurnal and often have large home ranges requiring conservation planning across a range of land uses. Protected areas do not provide enough space to conserve adequate numbers of these animals. On marginal lands cheetahs can live with fewer competing carnivores; however, they are then jeopardized by regular conflict with rural communities.
Most rural communities in Botswana depend on livestock farming for their livelihoods. Although research studies consistently show that only a relatively smal portion of a cheetah's diet consist of livestock (less than 6%), there is a common perception amongst farmers that carnivores have a significant negative impact on livestock farming, and this can lead to indiscriminate retaliatory killings. Human-wildlife conflict has had a devastating impact on species throughout the world and it is one of the main reasons for the loss of 90% of the world’s cheetah population (around 90,000 cats) in the course of just a single century. Since the turn of the last century we have lost half of the world's cheetahs (from an estimate of 12-15,000 individuals in the year 2000 to 7,100 today). The estimated population of 7,100 wild cheetahs in Africa today is classified as ‘Vulnerable’ in the IUCN’s Red List of threatened species.
Now Africa’s most threatened ‘big cat’, cheetah populations are unable to sustain the on-going levels of indiscriminate removal, both retaliation and "preemptive" killings for livestock protection, and poaching for illegal trade. The cheetah is formally protected by law in Botswana and internationally by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) where cheetahs are listed on Appendix I (allowing only limitted and highly regulated international trade). Despite these restrictions, many cheetahs are still killed in retaliation for real or perceived livestock predation.