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Cheetahs At Risk Of Extinction As Their Habitat Shrinks, Study Says

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The cheetah has a place in pop culture. We see these images of that swift and regal animal.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The cheetah is the fastest land animal in the world, but the animal is in trouble.

GREENE: There's a new study estimating that just over 7,000 cheetahs remain. Sarah Durant is with the Zoological Society of London.

SARAH DURANT: The distributional range of cheetah - and by that I mean the habitat that supports cheetah - has been significantly reduced. So now cheetah occupy only around about 9 percent of their historical range.

MARTIN: Sarah Durant has teamed up with the Wildlife Conservation Society. They tracked cheetahs over their range in southern Africa. It's a shrinking area that lies mostly beyond protected lands, like national parks.

GREENE: And that means they are more vulnerable to threats such as food shortages, which get worse when humans overhunt the animals cheetahs rely on for food. Cheetahs then begin targeting livestock. That brings them into conflict with farmers - a conflict the cheetahs will not win. Sarah Durant says conservationists are going to have to get creative.

DURANT: We'd like to see more carrot in addition to the current stick. So we'd like to see more incentivization of local communities to protect wildlife and for sustainable resource management.

MARTIN: For example, giving farmers cattle dogs to scare away cheetahs - that way protecting their livestock and the cheetahs, which they'd otherwise kill. But incentives can't protect the cheetahs in the face of poachers.

DURANT: There is trade in cubs as pets, mainly to the Gulf states from the Horn of Africa. There's also trade in cheetah skins from all across Africa.

MARTIN: Today, cheetahs are classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Durant's team urges that cheetahs be elevated to the more severe endangered category. That might galvanize world attention on a creature that conservationists warn may go extinct in as few as 15 years. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.