A man on safari in Tanzania got a much closer experience with the animals than he probably wanted. Britton Hayes from Seattle, Washington, was with a tourist group enjoying a look at rare animals in the natural habitat. But three cheetahs out hunting in Gol Kopjes of Serengeti National Park decided to get up close to the group – leaving them terrified.

Footage of the encounter has gone viral online, and it shows Hayes sitting perfectly still as a cheetah sniffs the jeep just inches from his head. Speaking to KOMO News, Hayes described what happened, and said: “We started to notice the cheetahs became curious of the vehicle. But it was too late to drive quickly away or anything like that because you don’t want to startle the animals, because that’s when things usually go wrong.”

Hayes praised his guide for helping him to remain calm and also showing him how to slow down his breathing. Doing this helped keep the cheetah at ease while it explored the jeep. He said: “Honestly, it was probably one of the scariest moments of my life while it was happening. I felt like I had to clear my mind of any thoughts because from everything you’re told about predators like that, they can sense fear and any sort of discomfort you’re feeling and they’ll react accordingly.”

Red List

The cheetahs behaviour before a tourist named Hayes is curious because the world’s fastest land mammal is racing toward extinction, with the latest cheetah census suggesting that the big cats, which are already few in number, may decline by an additional 53 percent over the next 15 years. “That’s really perilous,” says Luke Hunter, president and CCO for Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization. “That’s a very active decline, and you have to really step in and act to address that.”

Today there are just 7,100 cheetahs left in the wild, according to the new study, which appears this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That’s down from an estimated 14,000 cheetahs in 1975, when researchers made the last comprehensive count of the animals across the African continent, Hunter says.

In addition, the cheetah has been driven out of 91 percent of its historic range—the big cats once roamed nearly all of Africa and much of Asia, but their population is now confined predominantly to six African countries: Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, and Mozambique. The species is already almost extinct in Asia, with fewer than 50 individuals remaining in one isolated pocket of Iran. Based on these results, the study authors are calling for the cheetah’s status to be changed from “vulnerable” to “endangered” on the IUCN Red List. “These large carnivores, when they are declining at that sort of rate, then extinction becomes a real possibility,” Hunter says.

Perhaps the cheetahs are urging humanity to get moving fast to preserve the natural world!