Big Cats Initiative, part 3: Counting cheetahs


This is part 3 of my blog series on the Big Cats Initiative at Duke. Part 1 of the series, on saving lions, can be found here. Part 2 of the series, on spotting leopards, can be found here.


I have never met Esther van der Meer, but I know her story well.

A biologist by training, Esther moved from her native Netherlands to Zimbabwe in 2006 to study African wild dogs for her PhD. Six years later, her focus turned to cheetahs – and what had happened to them in Zimbabwe.

Speaking to authorities and researchers on the subject, Esther realized that there was no good information out there. “No one actually knew where the cheetahs were in Zimbabwe and how many we had left,” she recalls in a 2016 interview with her husband, Hans Dullemont. “So we decided to find out, and hit the road for three years.”

That three-year road trip around Zimbabwe, and the important data it produced on the country’s cheetah population, inspired a blog I wrote for National Geographic’s CatWatch during my semester with the Big Cats Initiative (BCI). My post was part of a larger project by Dr. Stuart Pimm, who advises the Duke chapter of BCI, to highlight the critical work of several field researchers in Africa who rely on BCI grants to continue pushing the envelope of conservation.

Esther’s single-handed census of cheetahs in Zimbabwe has played a key role in data collection for two major studies assessing the current global population of cheetahs. The first study, published last December in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, features both Esther and Duke BCI Coordinator Andrew Jacobson as contributing authors, with Andrew’s PhD advisor Sarah Durant, of the Zoological Society of London, as lead author.

That paper, “The global decline of cheetah Acinonyx jubatus and what it means for conservation,” found that the cheetah population has dwindled to little more than 7,000 individuals. Globally, the cheetah is now confined to 9% of its historical range. For the Asiatic cheetah, that number is a mere 2%, all within Iran.

The Duke BCI team is leading a second study that hopes to build on these findings. The BCI study likewise relies on Esther’s population and distribution data for cheetahs in Zimbabwe. Other data on cheetahs around Africa, dating from 2010-2016, has been pieced together from the work of other researchers. To complement Esther’s work, the team has gathered thousands of additional records from southern Africa to confirm the status of the southern African cheetah.

The BCI study is now in the peer-review process.

A cheetah waits out the midday sun in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. Cheetahs now survive in only 9% of their historical range.


Together, these two studies aim to make the same kind of waves in public awareness of the cheetah’s decline that BCI’s earlier papers made for lions and leopards.

Unlike those other cats, Andrew says that listing the cheetah under the U.S. Endangered Species Act is not a likely outcome because there is no significant import of cheetah trophies into the U.S., and therefore a listing wouldn’t have much effect. The bigger focus here is on the status of the cheetah under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an international body with membership from governments as well as civil society.

If the IUCN lists the cheetah as endangered, the recent push to crack down on the pet trade in cheetahs in Africa and the Middle East could gain much-needed momentum. The pet trade ranks alongside habitat destruction, loss of prey and human-wildlife conflict as major threats to the cheetah’s survival across its ever-more-limited range.

Cheetahs, like many big cats around the world, face an uphill battle to survive in lands increasingly overtaken by human settlement and agriculture. With those long odds, the work of Esther van der Meer and the BCI team is absolutely essential for raising global awareness of cheetahs and pushing strict conservation policies.

I am proud to be part of a school that devotes to these magnificent animals the research and resources they deserve.

Cheetahs are increasingly threatened by habitat loss, prey depletion, human-wildlife conflict and the illegal pet trade.