Hundreds of thousands of cheetahs were believed to have inhabited Africa, India and western Asia in the year 1900. That sadly is no longer true. India lost the cheetah in the 1940s, and in the 1970s, fewer than 200 survived in Iran. Only scattered pockets exist today in eastern and southern Africa and the Sahel region south of the Sahara. Because of the solitary nature of most wild cats, however, accurate population counts are difficult to obtain. Current figures estimate that anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000 cheetahs remain in the wild in Africa [source: Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute]. The Cheetah Conservation Fund places the total cheetah population, however, at closer to 10,000 [source: Cheetah Conservation Fund].
The cheetah is the world's fastest land animal, so it's hard to imagine how it became endangered. But such a fast animal needs large land areas, and much of its habitat has disappeared. And cheetahs are good hunters, but don't fight well to protect their catches from larger and tougher animals. Added to these problems are human conflict and a loss of genetic variation [source: Cheetah Conservation Fund].
It would seem that the best solution would be to breed cheetahs in captivity to help protect and replenish their populations. But that doesn't always work well, either. Popular opinion seems to be that how cheetahs are managed in zoos determines their breeding success. Here are some ways successful zoos do it:
- They don't house them with other cats, where they can be intimidated by lions in other cages.
- They keep female cheetahs alone or with their cubs.
- Cheetah Species Survival Plan researcher Nadja Wielebnowski says successful zoos keep cheetahs in large areas secluded from visitors.
- She also says they keep a large number of animals on hand so that more are available to mate. Certain female cheetahs have been known to reject some male cats and prefer others.
- Some zoos set up two separate living areas to give cheetahs the chance to see and smell new animals.
- Others have set up coursing tracks.
Regardless of breeding success, cheetahs in zoos help bring attention to the plight of their declining population in the wild; the sleek cats always are popular animals with zoo visitors.
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