It hardly seems possible that I’ve been working on the Remembering Wildlife series for five years. With each book, this being the fifth, we take a new endangered species as our subject and I immerse myself in its challenges and the solutions being implemented to try and save it. What I’ve sadly come to realise over the course of the series is that those challenges invariably always have humans at their heart. They all ultimately stem from the arrogant human assumption that all other living beings exist for our benefit—usually to consume, profit from, or employ—and that it is also perfectly acceptable to eradicate any that prove inconvenient to our lifestyles. With an ever-increasing human population, this problem only gets worse, year after year.
For a long time, I have therefore joked with friends concerned about conservation, that when some plague or other wipes out our species, nature will restore itself quite nicely, thank you. That our fast disappearing wildlife would bounce back healthily and in balance, once man was no longer around destroying it. I even speculated, in a rosy fantasy, that would be all for the better, that the future would simply clean up our past misdemeanours. Never, I must admit, did I seriously contemplate or fear that would happen in my lifetime. Yet writing this in early summer 2020, locked down in London due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this is suddenly a rather frightening possibility that no longer seems so far-fetched. Has our wake-up call and time of reckoning for our behaviour finally arrived? Perhaps.
Since man first walked on this planet, we’ve treated the Earth and all else living on it, as subservient to our needs. Over time, we’ve consumed to the point that much of what once was taken for granted as an exhaustless resource, can now be quantified as worryingly finite—at least for those brave enough to face the facts. To our shame, we’ve paid no heed to the warnings or predictions and ignored the evidence that zoonotic diseases could well cause the next pandemic, if our ways did not change.
So now this moment has actually arrived, what is the reality for the wildlife? What is becoming, in our absence (rather than our eradication), of the many species already struggling to survive the destructive effects of man, not least the cheetahs that are the subject of this book?
The answer is that right now, we can only speculate, but it is hard to imagine that the picture is good, despite circulating fake news designed to lift our spirits. Before any of this, the underlying picture for this most vulnerable and fragile cat was already deeply concerning. Over time, with decreasing habitat and prey, cheetah numbers have declined to the point of there now being only around 7,100 left in the wild. That’s only about a third of the number of lions left, and many were shocked at that figure when we wrote about it last year.
So why is this the case? One cause is that huge numbers of cheetahs were lost historically when they were captured as adults from the wild as hunting companions, due to the ease with which they could be tamed.
This tradition was largely the cause of their total eradication in India, for example, just 60 years or so ago, along with them also being hunted themselves. In more recent times, those same desirable traits see them still caught in their hundreds from the wild each year, but this time as cubs to be sold into the illegal pet trade largely in the Middle East. On the topic of the Middle East, the final pocket of Asiatic cheetahs in Iran is seeing human politics as the biggest threat to its survival, as Luke Hunter hauntingly explains later in this book. This aspect of the cheetah story is so important that we’ve actually chosen to dedicate this book to the researchers caught up in its tragedy.
Additionally, cheetah pelts continue to be coveted, trophy hunters still prize the thrill of killing them, and they also get caught in gin traps and snares left for bushmeat. On top of all of this, more than any other of the large cats, cheetahs have the dilemma of where they can survive. Extremely vulnerable to other predators, ironically, the safety of protected reserves where the likes of lions can thrive, can make that success for their bigger, aggressive cousins a difficult place for cheetahs to coexist. Reserves are not necessarily balanced, something that can be hard to manage and is little talked about, with interventions controversial. Add to that the pressure of being loved almost too much by tourists, which Femke Broekhuis sets out in her essay later, and some areas are not necessarily the haven we once thought for cheetahs.
The largest pockets of cheetahs have therefore survived in places like Namibia and Botswana, living on vast unprotected land in amongst the people who live and farm there, with killing by farmers the biggest threat of all for those populations.
Against this backdrop, instead of rejoicing that wildlife will now have a period to recover while people largely stay away, I fear the opposite may happen. The worry is that economic fallout and dramatically increased poverty in Africa will lead to urgent and escalating poaching (signs of which are already emerging), not only for the wildlife trade to make ends meet, but more often, simply for food. With snares for bush meat indiscriminate and likely now to multiply exponentially, many animals will perish in their brutal clench, including cheetahs. In the absence of tourists and, dare I say, hunters, the barriers to such poaching are greatly reduced. And the farmers and livestock owners, previously sympathetic to the odd loss after years of lobbying by conservationists, might now have no tolerance at all given the financial challenges they too will be facing.
Being an optimist, I have to hope we’ll emerge from this time with a greater appreciation and respect for nature. We’ve certainly seen millions turn to nature for some solace. And the fact that we were still able to raise the funds to make this book during the midst of this crisis also gives me faith that there are many others who feel the same. So can this moment be a turning point in our relationship with nature? I hope so. What I am certain of is that when we do emerge, wildlife is going to need our help more than ever, just at a time when philanthropic giving will be under enormous pressure and endless demand.
I therefore remain resolute to use this book series to raise as much awareness and as many funds as I can possibly achieve. As ever, we’ll be investing all profits through sales of these books into projects and initiatives that can make a real difference to cheetah numbers in the wild. That will include supporting projects which provide livelihoods to those living alongside wildlife. With tourism now proving a far less resilient solution than we’d ever contemplated for this purpose, it is more important than ever that funds are raised and delivered in other ways. People remain the key to the survival of cheetahs and in these most difficult of times, looking after them is imperative, as is safeguarding land where cheetahs can live. Reintroduction projects, such as that being consulted upon in India, may become all the more critical.
More than any other wild, large cat, cheetahs are generally less dangerous to humans and therefore easier to habituate and interact with. Since the internet came along, they’ve also become a desirable ‘selfie’ companion, sometimes when climbing on safari vehicles, or else in facilities which specifically offer that experience in order to raise money. Recently though, many have come to frown at any experiences that allow such interaction with cheetahs, as they can endanger the cat, no doubt build demand for cubs as pets or indeed encourage a breeding trade for just this purpose. This can be hard to accept for some who have worked and interacted safely with cheetahs for many years, and looking at the images in this book, few can fail to see the charms of why having a cheetah as a friend would appeal. But now is the time to apply respectful social distance in this relationship too. Cheetahs are wild. If we want them to survive in the wild, now is the time to reframe our relationship with both them and with nature as a whole.
See our photographic tribute to the cheetah in BEJournal volume 49.
Join the Cheetah Conservation Fund community and help save this amazing animal.