Cheetahs are the world’s fasted land mammals, able to accelerate from zero to 64 miles an hour in only three seconds. They are also one of the most ancient of the big cat species, with ancestors tracing back about 8.5 million years. Despite being swift-footed, ferocious hunters, cheetahs can’t outrun the growing threat of extinction.
Cheetahs are currently classified under the genus Acinonyx, whose closest living relatives are cougars and jaguarundis—both wild cats are native to the Americas. Altogether, 5 subspecies of cheetah are recognized: Northwest African cheetah Acinonyx jubatus hecki; East African cheetah Acinonyx jubatus fearsoni (or A.j. raineyi); South African cheetah Acinonyx jubatus jubatus; Northeast African cheetah Acinonyx jubatus soemmerringi; and Asiatic cheetah Acinonyx jubatus venaticus. All subspecies are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, except the Northwest African, which is endangered, and the Asiatic cheetah, which is critically endangered.
Cheetahs were once widespread in Africa and they roamed the Arabian Peninsula and central India as well. Globally, cheetahs occupy less than 10 percent of their historic range. Their remaining stronghold is in Southern and Eastern Africa at present. In Asia, wild cheetah numbers have shown a staggering decline with around 80 individuals remaining, but some recent estimates show their numbers as low as 12 individuals. Asiatic cheetahs are restricted to the central deserts of Iran.
With fewer than 7,000 mature individuals remaining in the wild, and a decreasing population trend, cheetahs are the most at-risk of all big cat species. Wild cheetah populations face multiple threats—from habitat loss and fragmentation, depletion of wild prey and human-wildlife conflict—to infrastructure development. The illegal wildlife trade and the exotic pet trade are other major threats to the species, as cheetahs are often poached for their uniquely spotted fur.
To raise awareness about the cheetah’s plight, an Oxford zoologist by the name of Dr. Laurie Marker, designated December 4 as International Cheetah Day. The annual celebration commemorates the 1976 birth of Khayam, a cheetah cub raised by Dr. Marker at Wildlife Safari in Winston, Oregon.
In 1977, the pair traveled to South West Africa (now Namibia) for further study. Dr. Marker witnessed farmers trapping and killing cheetahs in the thousands in response to their loss of livestock. Determined to find a better way for humans and wild animals to coexist, Dr. Marker returned to the United States with Khayam at her side and made national public appearances to educate diverse communities and generate empathy for a species in peril. Khayam became the first ambassador animal to represent her cheetah kin, and in doing so, went on to inspire a global captive-breeding program for rewilding the big cats.
In the 1980s, Dr. Marker collaborated with researchers from the Smithsonian Institution and the National Cancer Institute. The team discovered a lack of genetic diversity in cheetahs, poor sperm quality and high disease susceptibility—factors which significantly hindered captive-breeding efforts. In 1990, Dr. Marker founded the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), an international nonprofit headquartered in Otjiwarongo, Namibia, the “Cheetah Capital of the World.”
“We always think there is someone else who will do something, that ‘they’ will take care of it. I realized early in my work that there is no ‘they,’ and so I decided that I would take action to save the cheetah from extinction,” declared Dr. Marker.
Project Cheetah: Conservation through Collaboration
The first cheetah to be bred in captivity was in 16th-century India during the rule of the Mughal emperor Jahangir. His father, Akbar, reported approximately 10,000 cheetahs during his reign, including 1,000 in his own court. In the 20th century, the big cats were imported for sport and were quickly decimated as a result of hunting, diminishing habitat and prey depletion. During the British rule, extermination bounties were assigned to stop cheetahs from entering villages and killing livestock. Cheetahs became the only large mammal to disappear from India since the country’s independence in 1947, when the last remaining cats were extirpated.
India’s grasslands fell still without the stirring of these large predators. That is, until a few months ago…
On September 17, 2022, five female and three male cheetahs made the 5,222-mile journey from Namibia to India as part of a historic conservation action plan to reintroduce the species back to their former range. Orchestrated by CCF and Project Cheetah, the felines were selected based on an assessment of health, wild disposition, hunting skills and ability to contribute genetics that will result in a strong founder population. After undergoing a month-long quarantine, they were released with satellite collars into Kuno National Park, a 289-square-mile protected area about 200 miles south of Delhi. The mixed woodland and grassland habitat, as well as ample prey like antelope and wild boar, are similar to the South African biomes cheetahs have been thriving in.
“Finally we have the resources and the habitat to reintroduce the cat,” said Yadvendradev Jhala, Dean of the Wildlife Institute of India and Principal Scientist for Project Cheetah. The date marked the first time in the world a large carnivore was relocated from one continent to another for conservation purposes. Dr. Jhala is optimistic about the initiative, and together with India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, announced in a news release that they plan to introduce 50 cheetahs into Indian national parks over the next five years.
Proponents of the project say the cheetahs’ presence will support the environment and the local economy. “The cheetah is a magnificent animal, it’s a big magnet for ecotourism,” Dr. Jhala says. “If you bring in cheetah, the government will put funds into rehabilitating and rewilding these systems, and all the biodiversity will thrive.” He explains: “The goal of our project is to reverse the tide for cheetahs, to slow, then stop their decline, while at the same time increasing the biodiversity and health of Indian ecosystems. Bringing back a top predator restores historic evolutionary balance, resulting in cascading effects, leading to better management and restoration of wildlife habitat, for the benefit of all species, and will uplift the livelihoods of poor forest dwelling communities.”
On the two-month anniversary of their arrival, “rockstar” brothers Elton and Freddie, became the first of eight cheetahs to successfully hunt on Indian soil. According to tracking and surveillance data, Elton and Freddie made their first kill within the first 36 hours of their release from quarantine into the “boma,” a large inclosure that acquaints them to the native prey species. During 10 days of life inside the boma, they took down four adult chital. “Recognizing a new prey species as food is a great indicator they are adapting to their new environment in India. This is the first time a cheetah has successfully hunted in India in more than 75 years,” proclaimed Dr. Marker.
Indian Prime Minister Naendra Modi, who personally welcomed the cheetahs to Kuno National Park, recently sponsored a contest in which he asked Indian citizens to suggest names for the eight Namibian cats. More than 32,500 entries were received. The winners will receive a trip to see the cheetahs on a wildlife safari in the national park!
Meanwhile, big cat lovers can celebrate International Cheetah Day on December 4 online or at the CCF center in Otjiwarongo, Namibia, and in Hargeisa, Somaliland, where a second center is being constructed for cheetahs rescued from the illegal wildlife trade. This year marks the 12th annual celebration of this day.