A comprehensive assessment of cheetah populations in southern Africa, supported by the National Geographic Society, indicates that the species is facing a dire situation.

In a study published on December 11 in the open-access journal PeerJ, researchers present evidence that low cheetah population estimates in southern Africa and population decline support a call to list the cheetah as ‘endangered’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

With partial support from the National Geographic Society's Big Cats Initiative, an international team of 17 researchers, led by Florian Weise of the Claws Conservancy and Varsha Vijay of Duke University, analysed more than two million collared cheetah observations from a long-term study by the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research and another 20 000 cheetah observations from the research community and the general public.

Their findings show that free-ranging cheetahs were present across 789 700 sq km in Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe between 2010 and 2016. The study estimates only 3 577 adult cheetahs exist in this extensive area, which is larger than France, and a majority (55%) of individuals are found within only two habitats. This estimate is 11% lower than the IUCN's current assessment, supporting the call for the up-listing of cheetahs from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘endangered’.

"This collaborative, multiyear effort sounds the alarm about the state of cheetah populations in southern Africa, shining a light on the imperative need to protect these majestic predators," said Gary E. Knell, President and CEO, National Geographic Society. "The National Geographic Society is proud to support such a comprehensive assessment and similar efforts aimed at safeguarding our most precious species, their habitats and the planet we call home."

A novel aspect of the research was the use of observations from the general public. "For a highly photogenic species like the cheetah, using crowd-sourced photographs and videos taken by tourists is an innovative and cost-effective approach, especially in well-visited protected areas," said Weise.

"This is the area with the largest population of free-ranging cheetahs left on Earth. Knowing how many cheetahs there are and where they occur is crucial for developing suitable conservation management plans for the species," added Vijay.