While the world’s fastest land mammal may be racing toward extinction, the Saint Louis Zoo and its partners have been working diligently to slow and, ultimately, reverse this process.

For decades now, I have worked with big cats at the Saint Louis Zoo, and for the past 16 years, I have been deeply involved with cheetah conservation in the wild.

Cheetahs occupy a curious place in the human imagination. Beautiful and exotic, sports car fast and famously docile, they are highlighted by filmmakers and advertisers the world over. They are also the most endangered cat in Africa and Iran.

In the last century, the cheetah population has declined from 100,000 to fewer than 10,000 individuals. A few centuries ago, cheetahs roamed from the Indian subcontinent to the shores of the Red Sea and throughout much of Africa. Today, the species is extinct in at least 13 countries

The Saint Louis Zoo is home to six cheetahs: The females are Kamaria and Sadie, both 11 years old, and Bingwa,  3. The males are Jason, age 8, Joey, 7 and Suseli, 9.

I never tire of watching these remarkable creatures. We also enjoy educating visitors about them. Every year in December, we celebrate International Cheetah Conservation Day to raise awareness about the plight of cheetah in the wild and to build appreciation for them.

We love to see our visitors admiring cheetahs’ slender, streamlined bodies, which allow them to run fast. Their flexible spine and long legs let them take big strides.

They also have over-sized lungs, hearts and breathing passages, so they’re able to pump more oxygen during runs. Their long tails act like counter balances when running, and their semi-retractable claws (a feature they share with no other cat) are like spikes on a sprinter’s track shoe — offering a solid grip and quick acceleration.

Being fast helps cheetahs chase down prey, but these cats also have other traits that help them hunt. Their spotted coat provides good camouflage — perfect for sneaking up on unsuspecting victims! And the black “teardrops” under each eye may enhance their vision by reducing glare from the sun.

For their meals, cheetahs like gazelles best, but they keep an eye out for many other mammal species. They must eat quickly, because their food is often stolen by larger, more powerful animals (like lions, leopards and hyenas). Those larger animals also kill a large number of juveniles.

Beyond avoiding large animals and competing for food, cheetahs face other challenges: They are a particularly wide-ranging species, requiring large swaths of land to support a viable population. This also makes them very susceptible to habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation — a primary threat to the species.

For this reason, cheetah conservation efforts must include improving land use planning and practice and working across a very large landscape.

Outside protected areas, conflict with farmers and ranchers poses a significant threat. Though they prefer wild prey, cheetahs will occasionally kill livestock or animals on game farms, and many are killed in retaliation.

In addition, cheetahs are increasingly being illegally caught and smuggled into the Middle East to support the luxury pet trade. Cheetahs are highly fashionable in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, where a cub can fetch upward of $10,000. Sadly, more than two-thirds of the cubs smuggled as luxury pets die in transport.

You might think that we could increase the world’s population of cheetah by breeding them in reserves and zoos. But building populations of cheetah is tough as well.

Unlike other big cats, cheetahs have very different breeding and behavioral needs — they are very selective about their mates. At the Saint Louis Zoo, what began as an interest in discovering what makes these animals so selective has now become an international cooperative effort to link captive breeding programs with research projects and protection in cheetah range countries.

In 1974, the Zoo opened a facility for research and captive breeding and since then, has successfully raised more than 35 captive-bred offspring. The Zoo’s Cheetah Survival Center was renovated in 2001 to become part of the Zoo’s River’s Edge. There we have a large naturalistic habitat with three viewing areas, an off-display building and seven off-display holding yards.

Working with these and other animals at the Zoo, we have gained valuable information about cheetah captive management techniques and its biology. In addition, we share information — the Zoo coordinates its cheetah breeding efforts with other North American zoos as part of the Species Survival Plan® (SSP). These animals may provide assurance for wild populations in the future.

In the wild, the Zoo’s WildCare Institute Center for Conservation of Carnivores in Africa, which I direct, began by developing effective cheetah census techniques to determine baseline population numbers. These efforts have included visual counts of cheetah and identification by tagging the animals.

We surveyed local people about whether they had spotted cheetahs and created a GIS satellite database of sightings. Other techniques have involved analyzing feces, tracks or markings or using local trackers and dogs trained to locate cheetah scat or droppings.

We have also supported projects that involve photo surveys and camera traps, which capture photographs of animals automatically as a cheetah triggers an infrared sensor.

In recent years, we have worked with the Ruaha Carnivore Project in Tanzania, based at a camp a few miles outside the border of Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park. The first challenge for RCP was to address livestock security by creating protective barriers.

RCP brought in Anatolian shepherd dogs and designated local youth and expert trackers as “lion defenders” who monitor movement of predators, warn communities of carnivore presence, chase lions away from households and stop lion hunts. RCP has also provided books and equipment to schools and medicine and equipment to local clinics.

In addition, herders receive veterinary care for their livestock. This work has been very successful at reducing carnivore attacks on livestock and carnivore killings by local people.

In the past few years, our center has expanded its conservation efforts to include all 35 carnivore species in Tanzania. We are working with researchers in Kenya, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.  

In coming years, the Zoo’s staff and our partners in the Zoo’s WildCare Institute Center for Conservation of Carnivores in Africa will continue to educate the public about cheetah conservation, support sound scientific research and develop programs in Africa so that the cheetah’s race will be one of survival, not extinction.