Florian J. Weise, Varsha Vijay, Andrew P. Jacobson, Rebecca F. Schoonover, Rosemary J. Groom, Jane Horgan, Derek Keeping, Rebecca Klein, Kelly Marnewick, Glyn Maude, Jörg Melzheimer, Gus Mills, Vincent van der Merwe, Esther van der Meer, Rudie J. van Vuuren, Bettina Wachter, Stuart L. Pimm
Assessing the numbers and distribution of threatened species is a central challenge in conservation, often made difficult because the species of concern are rare and elusive. For some predators, this may be compounded by their being sparsely distributed over large areas. Such is the case with the cheetah Acinonyx jubatus. The IUCN Red List process solicits comments, is democratic, transparent, widely-used, and has recently assessed the species. Here, we present additional methods to that process and provide quantitative approaches that may afford greater detail and a benchmark against which to compare future assessments. The cheetah poses challenges, but also affords unique opportunities. It is photogenic, allowing the compilation of thousands of crowd-sourced data. It is also persecuted for killing livestock, enabling estimation of local population densities from the numbers persecuted. Documented instances of persecution in areas with known human and livestock density mean that these data can provide an estimate of where the species may or may not occur in areas without observational data. Compilations of extensive telemetry data coupled with nearly 20,000 additional observations from 39 sources show that free-ranging cheetahs were present across approximately 789,700 km2 of Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe (56%, 22%, 12% and 10% respectively) from 2010 to 2016, with an estimated adult population of 3,577 animals. We identified a further 742,800 km2 of potential cheetah habitat within the study region with low human and livestock densities, where another ∼3,250 cheetahs may occur. Unlike many previous estimates, we make the data available and provide explicit information on exactly where cheetahs occur, or are unlikely to occur. We stress the value of gathering data from public sources though these data were mostly from well-visited protected areas. There is a contiguous, transboundary population of cheetah in southern Africa, known to be the largest in the world. We suggest that this population is more threatened than believed due to the concentration of about 55% of free-ranging individuals in two ecoregions. This area overlaps with commercial farmland with high persecution risk; adult cheetahs were removed at the rate of 0.3 individuals per 100 km2 per year. Our population estimate for confirmed cheetah presence areas is 11% lower than the IUCN’s current assessment for the same region, lending additional support to the recent call for the up-listing of this species from vulnerable to endangered status.