By Farnaz Heidari

December 4 marking Intl. Cheetah Day: World’s fastest land animal is racing against extinction

December 4, 2016 - 8:36

Cheetah is world’s fastest land animal over short distances and also the most ancient of all the big cats. Years of persecution have made it one of the world’s most vulnerable big cats.

As Amy-Jane Beer and Pat Morris mentioned in Encyclopedia of Endangered animals, cheetahs probably evolved on the plains of the Middle East million years ago. Fossil evidence shows that 10,000 years ago cheetahs roamed in places as far apart as North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. The cheetah’s heyday lasted until the last ice age, since then human populations have exploded and their range and numbers have shrunk.

In their ancestral homeland of the Middle East the Asian subspecies of cheetah is critically endangered, with very few, if any, individuals left in remote parts of Iran. The situation is only slightly better in Africa.

Definitive habitats of Cheetahs in Iran consist of Touran Protected Area in Semnan Province, Kavir National Park which is also in Semnan Province, Nayband Wildlife Refuge in South Khorasan Province, Miandasht Wildlife Refuge in North Khorasan Province, Abbasabad Naein Wildlife Refuge in Isfahan Province, Darband Ravar Wildlife Refuge in Kerman Province, Dare-Anjir Wildlife Refuge, Siah-koh Ardakan National Park, Kalmand and Bahadoran Protected Area and Bafgh Protected Area in Yazd Province.

On the occasion of the International Cheetah Day, December 4, the Tehran Times conducted an interview with Human Jowkar, director of Conservation of Asiatic Cheetah Project (CACP) and Dr. Iman Memarian, the chief veterinarian of Pardisan Rehabilitation Center.

Asiatic Cheetah conflicts in Iran

“Asiatic Cheetah as a subspecies experienced bottleneck and a sharp reduction in population size and we know when a species is driven to extinction, it is usually by a combination of factors acting simultaneously or consecutively,” Jowkar explained.

Habitat loss and fragmentation among with specific group of threats such as over grazing and presence of livestock guardian dogs are considered as main threats for Asiatic Cheetah in Iran, Jowkar said, adding, it is difficult to clearly tell the number of Asiatic Cheetahs in the country because it is proven that estimating animal density by using camera traps have many shortcomings due to low detectability.

“We have many reports not just from Iran but also from Africa which indicate that surveying rare and sparse species like cheetah systematically covers wider scope of activity of the males than females and that’s why the number of females are small in our most camera trap surveys,” he highlighted.

“Therefore, currently we are trying to use genetic footprint method beside camera trap studies,” he added.

“As reduction of genetic variation has an important effect on survival of Asiatic cheetah we are going to examine genetic depletion which is correlated with problems such as elevated juvenile mortality, extreme abnormalities in sperm development, difficulties of captive breeding, and increased vulnerability to infectious disease outbreaks,” Jowkar pointed.

The costs of losing cheetahs in Iran

Jowkar further underscores the key role wildlife can play in reviving tourism industry regretting that Cheetahs’ habitats cover 6 million hectares of lands and are overlooked same as many other tourism potentials in the country due to oil availability.

Despite their stunning features the tourism potentials of such habitats are ignored, he added, stating, market and non-market values of cheetah’s habitats are why we are trying to conserve these species, he noted.

For example, Jowkar said, the Hircanian forests are of great non-market value to the people as they guarantee downstream cities by making big barrier on the way of flood; similarly cheetahs’ habitats play a significant role in pasture management.

Pasture management in cheetahs’ habitats goes back to 15 years ago, Jowkar said, explaining, the significance of pasture management are more evident in regions such Sabzevar and Nishapur which are likely to turn into hotspots for dust and sand storms.

In fact, he added, the fertility of many agricultural fields and also industrial development depend on pasture management and land use control which all result from conservation activities of Asiatic cheetah.

He further lamented the fact that the extinction of Cheetahs is the result of carelessness and lack of regional and intensive management which accordingly lead to pasture destruction and ultimately bring about deleterious effects not just upon the ecosystems but also people’s livelihood.

Asiatic cheetah’s breeding in captivity

The chief veterinarian of Pardisan Rehabilitation Center Memarian said “about 2 years ago, Delbar, a female cheetah, from Touran National Park and Kushki, a male cheetah, from Miandasht Wildlife Refuge were transferred to Tehran.”

Asiatic Cheetah research site in Pardisan Park, Tehran, was designed at that time to raise awareness of the plight of the cheetah and to campaign for its survival, Memarian said, adding, consulting with many experts leads to electing Pardisan over other options such as Kavir National Park, Khojir National Park or other existing sites [for breeding the two cheetahs in captivity].

“What we sought most was to monitor the two cheetahs and what we’ve achieved so far proves that we made the right decision,” he highlighted.

“The site is designed for more than two cheetahs, as we considered many assumptions such as taking care of hand-rear cubs from cheetah breeding facilities and raising them to be ambassadors for the other cheetahs who are taken from nature and kept in captivity in the same enclosure,” Memarian suggested.

Memarian further explained that the site is consisting of 6 separated parts, 2 of which are called introduction parts. Both cheetahs are spending most of their time in the introduction parts to mark territories, etc.

“We’ve done our best to make the site as similar as possible to the cheetah’s natural habitats,” he pointed.

So far many researches has been done on African Cheetahs and these studies show that cheetah reproduction in captivity is a difficult task to accomplish, he lamented.

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute plays a leadership role in the management of the North American cheetah population, including through the governance of the Breeding Centers Coalition, a group of nine facilities cooperating to generate a self-sustaining population of this species, Memarian said, adding, their researches reveal that the success rate is less than 10 percent with more than one couple and it increases to 30 percent with more than 10 couples.

He went on to say that “it should be noted that there has never been any similar study on subspecies of Asiatic Cheetah and keep in mind that the reproduction of cheetahs in captivity cannot solve the challenge of extinction for Asiatic cheetahs; we are just trying to advance our knowledge in this case.”

(Photos by Asghar Khamseh/ Tehran Times)

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