The habits of cheetahs have been fairly well explored. Researchers have written over a hundred articles about them just within the last twenty years or so. Compare that to the enigmatic Sand Cat, whose paper credits can be counted on the fingers, and maybe the toes, assuming there are some published articles that I didn't find. Book authors have also been prolific, although each new cheetah book is more about presenting the information in a new way, rather than presenting new information. I suppose I'll end up doing the same, except for one problem.

When I dug down deep in to the research on cheetahs, I unearthed a muck of extremely detailed work with very moderated conclusions. The more facts that I thought I knew, the less clear the whole picture became. In the end, embracing uncertainty was the only way to put it all together. While scientists are somewhat obligated to produce discrete numbers, I think in this case, we're better off with fuzzy logic. Here's an example.

A commonly quoted statistic says that there were 100,000 wild cheetahs at the turn of the century (and that was the last century, so we're talking about the early 1900s). What I found is that this number is often repeated but, as far as I could find, not actually explained. I finally asked a carnivore biologist about this, and he described how the number was probably calculated based on backward projections of population statistics and assumptions about prey availability and other conditions of the time. An enthusiast will find that cheetah books, articles, web sites, and all the way down to kids' school papers, are all happy to report that there used to be 100,000 cheetahs in the wild. The first global survey of cheetahs, done during the 1970s, estimated the total world population at 14,000. (I'll have more to say about the uncertainty of population surveys later, as well as more recent population estimates.) This was well after the extermination rampage in India, so we can say with reasonable certainty that the numbers used to be quite a bit higher. Unfortunately, it seems that nobody can say much more than that about past populations without adding a little creativity to the calculations.

So cheetah population statistics turn out to be fairly complicated, but I was surprised to find that the cheetah chronicle is much more tricky than that. The complexity begins right up front with the deceptively simple task of trying to define the cheetah.

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