Iran shelters the small surviving population of Asiatic cheetahs

January 24, 2007 - 0:0
WASHINGTON -- There was a time, a few hundred years ago, when Asiatic cheetahs roamed a vast area of South and Central Asia, from Kazakhstan to the Mediterranean. Cheetahs were so plentiful that they commonly appear in Mughal paintings of Indian jungles. The Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is now extinct in India and other range countries. The last wild Asiatic cheetahs survive in a remote area of Iran.

According to Peter Zahler, assistant director of the Asia Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in New York, there are only 50 to 60 Asiatic cheetahs left in the wild, and they live in the Dasht-e Kavir region of Iran. WCS, one of America’s leading wildlife conservation institutions, helps Iran conserve this precious population, training local wildlife professionals in effective practices for managing endangered species, their habitats and for surveying cheetahs and their prey. “Our main focus has been on protected area staff and students, getting them up to speed on the best ways to monitor and otherwise help preserve these great cats,” he said.

Powerful, graceful hunters, cheetahs are the world’s fastest animal and easy to train. Cheetahs were prized by ancient Persian kings, who used them to hunt gazelles. Recognizing the cats’ precarious situation, Iran’s Department of Environment has worked with the UN Development Program-Global Environment Facility and WCS since 2001 to save the tiny cheetah population from extinction. Zahler told USINFO Iran is very committed to conserving the cheetahs.

“[Iranians] understand and respect the issues related to conservation of wildlife there. Cheetahs have a real place in the culture of Iran, so there is a lot of interest and energy focused on saving that species,” he said.

Factors threatening the cheetahs include poaching and habitat degradation that caused a decline of wild sheep, wild goats and gazelles, their chief prey. The cheetah’s fragile, semi-arid habitat in the foothills has been affected adversely by human settlement. Agriculture has contributed to soil erosion, and livestock have overgrazed the region. Readily available guns and irresponsible hunters pose another problem.

“[T]he two things you need to do is control poaching both of cheetahs and the prey. I think the cheetah poaching has been fairly well controlled, and it’s a question of bringing prey numbers back to levels that can really support a bigger population of cheetahs,” Zahler said.

Effective anti-poaching enforcement implemented by the Iranian government has made a difference, he said.

“The area has few enough people and cheetahs are respected enough that with the right combination of management and local community outreach, there’s no reason to think that cheetahs can’t come back in Asia -- maybe not over their whole range, but certainly over a much larger part of it.”

Iran’s Department of Environment, working with WCS scientists, set up camera traps to survey the Asiatic cheetahs in the remote Dar-e Anjir (Fig Valley) Wildlife Refuge, which in 2005 captured images of a mother and four cubs. According to WCS, it is the largest group of the rare cats photographed in Asia.

“The fact that this female has managed to raise four cubs to six months of age is extremely encouraging,” WCS Great Cats Program director Luke Hunter said at the time.

Hunter plans to lead a team this spring that will train local Iranian conservationists to collar cheetahs and other animals to obtain more accurate information about their habits. Zahler said collecting such data about wildlife populations is critical: “Without knowing what the movements of cheetahs are, you can sit there and design protected areas but you have no idea if they are large enough or if they cover the proper habitat or the range, or if you need to include corridors.”

Anti-poaching enforcement and relocation of livestock that threaten protected habitat, as the Iranian government is doing, may give the charismatic cat a chance to survive in the wild. “Our goal is to help the Iranian government get that information and then use it properly so that they can manage the cheetahs and bring them back,” Zahler said.

WCS was founded in 1895 at New York’s Bronx Zoo. Dedicated to scientific research and international wildlife conservation, education and park management, it promotes ways for humans and wildlife to coexist while sustaining habitat for the future. WCS currently operates more than 350 field conservation projects in 54 countries around the world.