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    Cheetah numbers decline as African habitat shrinks

    JOHANNESBURG — Amid population declines for many wildlife species in Africa, conservationists are sounding alarm bells for the cheetah, the fastest animal on land.

    An estimated 7,100 cheetahs remain in the wild across Africa and in a small area of Iran, and human encroachment has pushed the wide-ranging predator out of 91 percent of its historic habitat, according to a study published Monday.

    Consequently, the cheetah should be defined as ‘‘endangered’’ instead of the less serious ‘‘vulnerable’’ on an official watch list of threatened species worldwide, the study said.

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    ‘‘This period is really crunch time for species like the cheetah that need these big areas,’’ said Sarah Durant, a cheetah specialist at the Zoological Society of London and the lead author of the report published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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    About 77 percent of cheetah habitats fall outside wildlife reserves and other protected areas, requiring outreach to governments and villages to promote tolerance for a carnivore that sometimes hunts livestock, the study said.

    Besides habitat loss, cheetahs face attacks from villagers, loss of antelope and other prey that are killed by people for their meat, an illegal trade in cheetah cubs, the trafficking of cheetah skins, and the threat posed by vehicles.

    A cheetah has been recorded running at a top speed of 95 feet per second.

    More than half of the world’s cheetahs live in southern Africa, including in Namibia and Botswana, which have relatively sparse human populations. Cheetahs have been virtually wiped out in Asia, save for fewer than 50 in Iran, according to the study.

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