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The Cheetah can travel faster than any mammal on land, but the rapid pace of its habitat loss, driven by human activity, could be threatening the species with extinction.

cheetahsMore than any other large cat on the African continent, the Acinonyx jubatus (cheetah) is at the greatest risk of dying out, according to the Cheetah Conservation Fund, which marks International Cheetah Day today, December 4. According to the CCF, the cat’s numbers have dropped from from 100,000 a century ago to just 10,000 today. 

In the sixties their pelts became a hot fashion item — part of a craze for spotted fur kicked off by former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who appeared in a 1967 New Yorker photo spread draped in leopard skin. Though they are no longer quite in vogue, Cheetahs continue to be trafficked by international cartels to wealthier buyers in places like the UAE and Qatar, who keep them as luxury pets. Researchers have also speculated that the Cheetah’s energy intensive hunting patterns — they can sprint up to 75 miles an hour chasing a meal — have made their existence precarious. A new study suggests otherwise, pointing the finger at human activity once more for slicing up and dividing the Cheetah’s habitat.

“In people’s imaginations, cheetahs run very quickly all the time,” said David Michael Scantlebury, an animal physiologist whose research into the energy budgets of the feline was published this fall in the journal Science. The cats have generally been believed to have the energy economy of extreme athletes, Scantlebury explained, speaking with Planet Experts from Ireland’s Queens University in Belfast, where he is based. “If you are an Olympic sprinter, for instance, just by sitting in an armchair you are going to have a higher cost of maintaining your body than a typical couch potato scientist.”

It was thought that, relative to other predators of its size, the cheetah’s high-energy hunting necessitated eating larger quantities of prey. On top of that, Cheetahs are mesopredators, meaning they occupy the middle of the food chain and get nothing but grief from above and below their trophic level. Lions run them off and hyenas gnaw their dinners to bits when they aren’t looking. All the while they expend more energy securing food than any other animal in their trophic class. 

But contrary to popular belief, Scantlebury’s research found cheetahs use up the bulk of their fuel roaming rather than hunting. Together with noted wildlife biologist Gus Mills and a local South African tracker, Scantlebury followed the cats in Southern Africa armed with tranquilizing darts. Once the cheetahs were sedated, he injected them with heavy water and then followed the felines over two weeks through the Kalahari, collecting their stool deposits in order to monitor their energy budgets.

“We made a statistical model as to what aspects of their daily life were causing them to expend the most energy,” said Scantlebury. “The only thing we found that affected what their energy costs were on any given day was the distance they traveled. They traveled on average 2.86 hours a day, but that amounted to some 42 percent of their energy costs. It may have looked like a leisurely stroll, but they’re going up and down sand dunes in the heat.”

Cheetahs are actually quite resilient. They are adept at competing with other predators, can go up to ten days without eating and can survive when water is scarce, absorbing most of their H2O through prey, making it is easier for them than other animals to withstand drought caused by climate change. But Scantlebury’s findings indicate they might not might be able to persevere through human encroachment of their habitat.

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“Anything that makes cheetahs walk further is going to increase their energy cost quite dramatically,” he said. “If humans come along and change their environment — building roads, erecting fences, separating areas they would walk between — it vastly increases their energy costs and, perhaps, decreases their ability to survive in an area.”

Nowhere is the impact of humans on the cheetah population more evident than just outside the Kenya’s capital, where roads, train lines, housing developments and factories are increasingly impinging on Nairobi National Park. Not only have roadways diced up the Cheetah’s terrain but so many motor vehicles have struck and killed the animals that one conservationist told the UK Guardian last month that there are none left in the wildlife preserve.

Yet Scantlebury insists the takeaway from his research is that humans can often alter ecosystems in very subtle ways and need to be aware of the impact they can have. “You imagine the biggest effect on animal populations would be people poisoning them or going out with dogs and hunting them or major mining works,” he said. “But even subtle changes to the environment can have a big impact on the community of animals living there.”

It could be something as simple as a fence that facilitates the Cheetah’s journey on the path towards extinction.

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