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Humans Responsible for Plummeting Numbers of Cheetah in Wild

First Posted: Oct 06, 2014 04:55 AM EDT

A decline in the number of cheetahs is attributed to the excess energy expended by the animal in combating human activities in its domain, says a study.

It is estimated that the number of cheetahs in the wild has dropped below 10,000 from 100,000 a century ago. Restricted habitat and bigger predators were listed as the main causes of their decline.  The traditional thinking revealed that cheetahs lack sufficient access to prey to fuel the required energy output when engaged in extremely fast chases.

For the first time, researchers at Queen's University Belfast discovered that cheetahs do not burn excess energy when compared to other similar sized mammals, even if they are noted as the fastest runners. Rather they found that cheetahs suffer from more energy loss while hunting for prey than they do in bursts of running, which is infrequent.

Human activities lower or trigger re-distribution of their prey that drastically impacts the cheetah's ability to balance the energy.

To prove this, the researchers studied 19 free roaming cheetahs. They focused on each for two weeks across two sites in southern Africa. The two sites included Kalahari Desert and the other a wetter area. Prior to tracking the animals, the researchers injected each one of them with heavy water and them monitored them continuously and collected samples of their faeces.

Using the fecal samples the researchers determined how much  of the heavy water the cheetahs lost each day and also calculated the energy they burnt.

"What we found was that the cats' energy expenditure was not significantly different from other mammals of similar size - cheetahs may be Ferraris but most of the time they are driving slowly. What our study showed was that their major energy costs seem to be incurred by travelling, rather than securing prey. If you can imagine walking up and down sand dunes in high temperatures day in, day out, with no water to drink you start to get a feel for how challenging these cats' daily lives are, and yet they remain remarkably adapted and resilient," said lead researcher Dr. Michael Scantlebury from Queen's School of Biological Sciences.

These spotted large cats can withstand lions and hyenas stealing and feasting on their prey.  But the true picture is that human activity is pressuring the cheetahs to travel greater distances that may be compromising their energy more than any of the single factor.

Co-researcher Dr Nikki Marks, also from Queen's University Belfast said: "Research of this type helps improve our understanding of the challenges facing cheetahs as they strive to survive and helps inform future decisions on conservation strategies for cheetahs and other threatened animals."

The finding was documented in the international journal Science.

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