Do you remember the first time you ever saw an exotic car in real life? Not just a cool car, or an unusual car, but a supercar ... the kind that adorns the walls of boys' bedrooms, later a few dormitory rooms and eventually the walls of "man caves" around the world: Beautiful. Sleek. Racy. Purposeful. Dangerous. Special. Rare. So amazing that even people who don't know cars stop and stare and whisper, "Wow." I was a little boy when I saw my first exotic car: a De Tomaso Pantera. The engine's deep growl gave way to a throaty roar as it accelerated away from my astonished nine-year-old self in a blur of red paint, chrome and shiny black rubber, eliciting a visceral response at the fleeting encounter with something so exceptional.
Almost 20 years later, my first encounter with a wild cheetah in Kruger National Park brought on that same open-mouthed, breathy grin; and, no, the irony of that automotive Pantera sighting foreshadowing a career dedicated to the conservation of big cats and other carnivores has not gone unnoticed.
The cheetah is the supercar of the big cat world. They're arguably the most specialized of Africa's big predators. A cheetah's disproportionately small head isn't great, nor is it designed for housing the massive teeth, strong jaws and chewing musculature that are the hallmarks of most big cats ... but it is purposefully captivating, a streamlined control center for high-speed pursuits, much the same way a Ferrari's nose hints at its running speed versus that of a Peterbilt.
Cheetahs are so long-legged that they're downright lanky. Their limbs aren't packed torso-to-paw with the dense, thick muscles that a leopard or lion uses to overpower and subdue prey, giving way instead to elongated, almost graceful limbs. The bulging muscle masses at a cheetah's shoulders and hips, however, leave no question about the explosive potential for speed and acceleration available at a moment's notice. Zero to 60 mph for a cheetah: three seconds. The Ferrari Testarossa on my boyhood bedroom wall: nearly twice that. The Dodge Challenger Hellcat, the most powerful muscle car ever in production, can't beat it.
These specializations have allowed cheetahs to exploit a unique space, taking advantage of otherwise-too-speedy prey, for instance. Specialization comes at a cost, though. High speeds can't be sustained for long ... in just one pursuit, a cheetah can burn as many calories as found in a pepperoni pizza, whether they manage to bag an impala or not, and burning that much energy so quickly generates heat that continues to build even after the chase and also requires an extensive (and potentially costly) cool-down period.
Being the fastest means the cheetah certainly isn't the most powerful or durable of the big cats ... but these tradeoffs to being the very fastest land animal make it just as fascinating as , if not more than, the cars of boyhood dreams. Nature honed the cheetah through millions of years of evolution and created a product that exceeds the expectations and abilities of human engineering. Problem is, humans are also engineering the cheetah's demise.
Just as the care and maintenance of exotic cars is not something responsibly left to chance or random kindness, the conservation and preservation of cheetahs and other big cats is not a venture for the faint of heart. Precious few cheetahs remain in the wild. To contextualize: Africa, which is home to more than a billion people, is home to fewer than 10,000 cheetahs. That's a 100,000-to-1 ratio. Cheetahs face many of the same threats as other big cats: retaliatory killing by angry herders, prey depletion by poachers, habitat conversion by farmers. They also have the comparatively high threat of capture by illegal wildlife traders for the pet trades, are sometimes so rare and elusive that they aren't known to inhabit an area until it is too late for conservationists to help protect them and are more susceptible to aggression and competition from other predator species than other big cats. Cheetahs are runners, not fighters.
With all of these threats to consider, National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative (BCI) is dedicated to the protection of cheetahs and other big cats, and seeks to stem their decline. Through an innovative grants program, the BCI has funded 65 field-based conservation projects in 23 countries since it launched in 2009, with more being funded every few months. Thirty-one of these projects have focused at least in part on cheetah conservation, 22 exclusively so.
Cheetah conservation projects conducted by BCI grantees range from working directly with farmers to identify and relocate problem cheetahs that might otherwise be killed as "livestock pests," to training "detection dogs" to find and identify previously unknown or unidentified cheetah populations. Other programs supported by the BCI promote legislation affording protection to cheetahs that cross international borders and sponsor multinational summits to coordinate Africa-wide cheetah conservation strategies. From the most local to the continental levels, this Big Cats Initiative is doing everything it can to make sure cheetahs survive and flourish for future generations in the wild.
I can't imagine a world without cheetahs, nor would I want to. It's up to us to make sure that doesn't happen. Please tune in to Big Cat Week through December 5 on Nat Geo WILD or log on here to learn more and contribute to solutions to keep cheetahs and other big cats running wild.
And while my wife won't let me hang an exotic car poster in our living room, cheetahs on the Serengeti plains, as painted by the late Simon Combes, look out across our living room, framed and hanging from their high and permanent perch over our mantle.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with Nat Geo WILD's Big Cat Week. To see all the other posts in the series, click here. For more information about big cats, check out National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative.