By Kathryn Sippel, Lead Zookeeper at Binder Park ZooOriginally posted by Binder Park Zoo

Did you know that the cheetah is the world's fastest land mammal? The cheetah can reach a running speed of up to 70 mph in just three seconds. However, this amazing animal is struggling to survive in the wild.

This past November I traveled to Africa to do field work with Action for Cheetahs in Kenya (ACK), an organization whose mission is to promote the conservation of cheetahs through research, awareness and community participation in Kenya. Their conservation efforts are helping to influence the survival of the cheetah whose population now stands at less than 7500 in the wild.  Here at Binder Park Zoo, we participate in the Cheetah Species Survival Plan (SSP) through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), a program that cooperatively manages this endangered species. As the only accredited zoo in Michigan with cheetahs, our participation in this program helps maintain healthy and genetically diverse animal populations.

Since 2004, ACK has been studying community development in Kenya and its effects on cheetahs and their ecosystem in Salama, a small East African town located in Kenya.  In 2009, a second study site was started in the Samburu region to look at the trends in that area.  I traveled to both sites where I worked in the field collecting data for vegetation studies. While it may not sound exciting, this data collection is critical for studying cheetahs.  The data compares how the terrain appeared from the last known cheetah sighting to its current state, as well as the prey base. These comparisons allow researchers to infer how the cheetahs adapt to these changes and what factors have the biggest impacts on their survival. I was surprised to find both sites very different from each other; one being a dense shrub area and the other a rocky cliff region - not the open grassland I expected to see. Cheetahs had existed in both areas for a very long time, proving their adaptability to different ecosystems, but the data from ACK's field work revealed a prior population of at least 30 declining to only 5-7 animals at the Salama site.

The cheetah population has been dwindling across Africa due to land development, farmers overgrazing their livestock, and human/animal conflict. The only true way to help save this species is through education.  Working directly with these communities can help preserve both land and wildlife. ACK, along with other cheetah conservation organizations and zoos work with these communities to develop ways to cohabitate with cheetahs and other predators.  Should cheetahs disappear, their prey populations would increase, which in turn decreases vegetation for domestic animals and humans.  This domino effect, due to the elimination of just one species, can have grave consequences that result in even further conflict.

My trip was an incredible experience - the opportunity of a lifetime.  But as a zookeeper, this experience also helped me recognize the enormous value that zoos provide when it comes to educating people.  Zoos offer people opportunities to see animals that they may never have the chance to see in the wild. Seeing cheetahs and other endangered species up close can help people not only appreciate how unique they are, but also understand their situation and the changes that must be made, so all wildlife can continue to thrive in the wild.  When I asked the ACK team if there is one thing someone could do to help save the cheetahs, their answers were all the same - for people to educate themselves.  Visiting the cheetahs at Binder Park Zoo is a first step in that process. The Zoo will open for the season on April 13, 2017 but until then you can learn more about Action for Cheetahs in Kenya