A team of researchers has analysed over two million observations of collared cheetahs taken between 2010 and 2016.
The animals were recorded occupying under 800,000 square kilometres across Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
“This is the area with the largest population of free-ranging cheetahs left on Earth,” says Varsha Vijay of Duke University. “Knowing how many cheetahs there are and where they occur is crucial for developing suitable conservation management plans for the species.”
The findings indicate that only 3,577 adult cheetahs live in an area larger than France, and 55% of the animals were only found within two habitats.
This approximation is 11% lower than the current IUCN data, prompting a call to upgrade the cheetah from Vulnerable to Endangered.
An unusual part of this research was that it included photographs and footage taken by members of the public, which according to Weise was “an innovative and cost-effective approach.”
By including tourists in the data-gathering process and casting a wider observational net, the researchers discovered not only the number of cheetahs, but also locations that supported cheetahs in which they hadn’t previously been observed.
Worryingly, only 18% of the cheetah range was inside the parameters of internationally recognised protected areas. In Namibia, there was significant overlap with areas containing livestock and game.
Data gathered from farmers who share their land with cheetahs indicated that while 26.5% actively persecute them, 49.7% consider these animals a source of conflict.
The incentive behind the call to elevate the cheetah’s status is to raise awareness about the perilous situation the animals are currently facing.
It is hoped that an upgrade would increase efforts to monitor the population, enabling conservationists to continue supporting this iconic feline predator.
Read the full paper in PeerJ
Main image: Cheetah on a termite mound in the Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. © Mike Hill/Getty