The East African
1 March 2010
Nairobi — Scientists say the prehistoric cheetah originated in Africa during the Miocene epoch between 26 million and 7.5 million years ago and then moved to Asia and spread its habitat range over millennia as far as China and the Americas.
Today only one species of cheetah remains on earth, the Acinonyx jubatus with the earliest fossil from Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania dating back to the Plesitocene epoch.
This beautiful spotted feline is no longer found in the wild in its historic range save for a few countries in Africa and in Iran in Asia.
India, the country that gave the cat its name from the word "chitra" meaning the spotted one, saw the last one in the wild in the 1940s.
According to respected Indian cat conservationist Divyabhanusinh Chavda, the demise of the Indian cheetah was occasioned by the lack of strategy to save it from extinction.
In that respect, Kenyan cheetahs could be spared such a fate because of a conservation strategy launched on February 17 this year at the Kenya Wildlife Service headquarters and aptly titled the National Large Carnivore Conservation Strategies. The strategy is meant to save Kenya's endangered..
Large carnivores, include the lion, the leopard, the African wild dog, the spotted hyena, the striped hyena and of course the cheetah, which is the smallest and the most genetically endangered feline.
Almost all species on earth today, save for homo sapiens, the cockroach and other pests, face unprecedented threats that need strategic planning to save them. Many are listed as endangered on the conservationist red data books.
"Extinction," said Dr Samuel Kasiki of the KWS, "is forever. But 'endangered' means that we still have time to save the species."
The KWS strategy plan gives the numbers of the large carnivores, including their ranges in Kenya. Almost all the six species are found in the protected areas of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Tsavo National Park and Samburu Game Reserve.
Outside the protected areas, the Samburu-Laikipia-Isiolo and Kajiado-Magadi ecosystems are strongholds for species such as the striped hyena, which is the least known of the big carnivores.
Data from 50 years ago shows that Kenya had 20,000 lions, 10,000 leopards, 10,000 cheetahs, 20,000 wild dogs and 50,000 hyenas.
Today's inventory of the species is dismal: Lions, 2,000; leopards are widespread but figures not established; cheetahs 1,160; wild dogs, 845 and striped hyenas, 1,000.
The rate at which the numbers are diminishing means that in the next 50 years, all these species found in the wild in Kenya, would be extinct if nothing is done.
On the other hand, 50 years ago, Kenya's human population was about seven million.
Today it's an estimated 40 million and is projected to hit 240 million by 2060 -- 50 years later.
Kenya and Egypt host 82 per cent of the global population of the striped hyena, whereas the spotted hyena is found in almost all the protected areas including the Nairobi National Park.
Once common across the African continent, nobody would ever have thought that the stripped hyena would one day be classified as endangered.
The African wild dog today covers 13 per cent of its historic range in Kenya. In the early 1990s, there was real concern that this canine was on its way to extinction.
The reason being that farmers wanted to get rid of the predator because it was deemed to be the cause of their dwindling livestock numbers.
The wild dog is said to hunt in packs by chasing its victim till it is then ravaging it while it is still alive.
In Kenya, colonial policies encouraged farmers to kill the wild dog -- it was considered a bloodthirsty, dangerous animal.
When renowned wildlife writer and photographer Karl Amman -- author of The Hunters and the Hunted -- told his publishers about his encounter with a pack of wild dogs who came close enough to tug a piece of cloth from his hand, they did not believe him. He showed them pictures that proved his story.
The leopard, on the other hand, while widespread and the only cat found in almost all habitats ranging from the snow covered landscapes to deserts, is rapidly diminishing in numbers as is the cheetah.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org