The cheetah is rapidly heading towards extinction, with only 7,100 of the world’s fastest mammal now left in the wild, a study published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found. The population of the wild cat has seen an alarming drop since the late 1990s. For instance, there were 1,200 cheetahs in Zimbabwe in 1999, which has plunged to 170 at present, the report said, according to BBC.

One of the factors attributed to this population crash is that cheetahs often roam in lands that stretch beyond the limits of protected reserves and national parks. Some 77% of their habitat falls outside these areas, the report said. Expansion of farmland has also eaten into their habitat, leading to their drop in numbers.

“Our findings show that the large space requirements for the cheetah, coupled with the complex range of threats faced by the species in the wild, mean that it is likely to be much more vulnerable to extinction than was previously thought,” said the report’s lead author, Dr Sarah Durant from the Zoological Society of London, United Kingdom.

The illegal trafficking of cubs, pushed by demand from countries in the Gulf, is another contributing factor. The Cheetah Conservation Fund has estimated that some 1,200 cubs were trafficked out of Africa over the past decade, but at least 85% of them died en route.

Researchers have called for a “paradigm shift in conservation”, saying “securing protected areas alone is not enough” to protect these animals. “We must think bigger, conserving across the mosaic of protected and unprotected landscapes that these far-reaching cats inhabit, if we are to avert the otherwise certain loss of the cheetah forever,” said Dr Kim Young-Overton from Panthera, another author of the study.

The report has also urged the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to categorise the mammal as “endangered” on its Red List – it currently falls in the “vulnerable” group – to bring its looming extinction into focus globally.