Dr Kim Young-Overton, Cheetah Program Director for Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organisation, tells Travel Africa about the world’s fastest animal, the threats it faces and what is being done to address them. Picture credit Paul Funston, Panthera.
What is it about cheetahs that you find magnificent and unique?
They are simply beautiful creatures. They are truly charismatic, sleek, agile, and — of course — fast! But seeing them in the field has given me even more to admire. Cheetah mums fight and challenge much larger predators to defend their cubs against so many odds. To do this, they have to use all their skills — speed, cunning and sheer, bold bravery.
I also like the way a sibling group stays together well into adolescence, independent of their mum, and then divides into a brothers’ coalition and single females around two years old. There is an enormous amount of cuddling and grooming among them right through to adulthood. No other big cat forms sibling groups like this, as far as I know.
I’m also continually surprised, fascinated and inspired by the sheer distance cheetahs cover over the course of a month, season and year to find prey and avoid lions and other challenges. In Zambia’s Kafue National Park, for instance, they can cover more than 2500km in a month.
As a scientist who is lucky enough to see this cat in the wild day in and day out, what can you tell us about its status?
Globally, cheetahs are on the decline. Even in their strongholds, we are concerned that populations are declining. In 2017, an analysis of abundance and distribution by leading wild cat scientists found only 7100 are left in the wild and concluded that this number could half within a decade.
We need to understand and acknowledge that cheetahs are threatened with extinction in our lifetime. To avert this, we need to preserve them and their habitats within protected areas
Why, of all the species and cats in the world, have you chosen to devote your life to saving the cheetahs?
I have always been fascinated and inspired by vast, open landscapes and the wildlife they hold. Cheetahs epitomise Africa and her vast wilderness landscapes. However, these cats also symbolise the conservation challenges associated with preserving highly mobile species across them. They need large unoccupied spaces to survive and thrive.
To meet their needs, we must provide a network of protected areas with safe connectivity pathways between them. I am captured by the need to call on just about every tool in our toolbox to preserve this highly mobile species within and across safeguarded area boundaries and country borders at multiple geographic, social and political scales.
We know from existing programmes that translocations of cheetahs are not easily successful. Unless we act now to protect this species from poaching, snaring, persecution, killing and loss of habitat, it will be eliminated from the wild forever. We also need to create financial incentives for sightings caught on camera-traps and to promote tolerance of their presence.
What would you like people to know about cheetahs?
These felines are unique as the only wild cat in the Acinonyx genus. Their disappearance from Africa’s landscape would signify the vanishing of something quintessentially African. With their loss, part of our own human connection with Africa would also be lost.
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