The cheetah is rapidly disappearing and risks extinction if urgent measures aren't taken to save the mighty cat. A new report estimates there are only 7,100 of the world's fastest mammals left in the wild, the vast majority of them living outside of protected areas, the BBC reports. Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers are calling for the cats to be reclassified as an "endangered" species from "vulnerable" on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List. One of the most wide-roaming carnivores, cheetahs need a lot of space, some 30 by 30 miles, per CNN. Over time, the cats have lost 91% of their native habitat in Africa and southwest Asia. Today, half of the world's cheetahs live across only six countries in southern Africa. In Zimbabwe, there are only 170 cheetahs left, down from 1,200 in 1999. Asian cheetahs are nearly gone, and fewer than 50 remain in Iran.
One of the main reasons behind the declining numbers is human development that has cut into the cheetah's territory. Other problems include illegal trafficking of cheetah parts, and cubs that command as much as $10,000, particularly in Gulf States, per the BBC. Bushmeat hunting also is blamed for culling cheetah prey. All of those factors "mean that it is likely to be much more vulnerable to extinction than was previously thought," says lead author Sarah Durant, per the Telegraph. Protecting the cats will require a major shift in thinking away from protected territory, since cheetahs don't tend to stay put. Instead, conservationists should consider moves such as paying locals to protect a species, even ones they may consider dangerous. "We must think bigger," says co-author Dr. Kim Young-Overton, "if we are to avert the otherwise certain loss of the cheetah forever." (Evolution cheated the giant panda.)