By Farnaz Heidari

What choices do we have for saving Asiatic cheetahs?

July 8, 2018 - 11:21

There are recent reports on the successful cheetah translocations from South Africa to Liwonde National Park in Malawi led by African Parks.

African Parks is a non-profit conservation organization that takes on the complete responsibility for the rehabilitation and long-term management of national parks in partnership with governments and local communities.

However, this is not an easy project because cheetahs tend to differ from other big cats in their adaptation for trans-locating. The experience of daily monitoring of 13 lions (Panthera leo), 15 cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) and their offspring in Phinda Resource Reserve might give some broad insights because researchers adopted soft release technique for this study which is not applied or even considered in Iran till now. 

But what is soft release? Some animal species are much more likely to survive if they receive special care and assistance upon release. This approach is known as soft release based on Richard B. Primack in a Premier of Conservation Biology.  

The study of Phinda Resource Reserve demonstrated that techniques such as co-housing (establishing unfamiliar and unrelated individuals of each species) during the prerelease captivity period, are probably ended in different reactions in socialized groups and lone individuals. It also showed that the patchiness of available preferred habitat (discrete areas which are used by species for breeding or obtaining other resources) may have increased the likelihood of conflict between male African cheetah coalitions.

In fact, there are very few successful projects to learn from, and widely practiced projects are far from expectations. While lessons from the Phinda Resource Reserve, South Africa, indicates that the rehabilitation of human-altered landscapes may be an important factor affecting project success, others are unable to grasp real measurable changes that promotes conservation, as Endangered Wildlife Trust said.

The subject falls into two different major viewpoints: pros and cons of captive-breeding and reintroduction. Cheetah's captive-breeding isn't necessarily a bad thing, nonetheless conflicts arise from largely unsuccessful projects.

Reintroduction background

The rapid economic development over recent years has been a significant threat to all big cats. The natural mosaic of habitats that suits big cats and their prey has been broken up. Scientists know that it may all have come too late to save big cats and that's why reintroduction is noticed in specific cases. 

An article titled "Detailed action plan prerequisite for conservation of lynx in Iran", published in Tehran Times in April addressed Spanish government experiences on lynx conservation in breeding. Collaboration of the Spanish national and regional administrations, different NGOs (like World Wildlife Fund) and the European Union (via the Life projects), resulted in the species recovering from extinction.

Meanwhile, for all we know, big cats are close cousins but can be told apart by many characteristics. Consequently, it is hard to draw much conclusion from a single successful report.

On the other hand, cheetahs are so vulnerable and may even face problems inside well-protected national parks. Now, African Parks confirmed that a small founder population of cheetahs has been successfully relocated to Liwonde National Park in Malawi, to restore the severely threatened species at least twenty years after its extinction in Malawi.

One has to ask: "Why Iranian Department of the Environment (DoE) does not go the way of Malawi, especially in the case of Acinonyx jubatus venaticus, which is Critically Endangered according to IUCN Red List of Threatened Species?"

In fact, there are some critical concerns about the subspecies Acinonyx jubatus venaticus, commonly called the Asiatic Cheetah. Leili Khalatbari, senior author of the article titled "The current status of Asiatic Cheetah in Iran" has pointed out the population size and also presented conservation actions that recommended by Iranian experts.

According to this article, presence of three scattered subpopulations in the central arid plateau confirmed and the population number estimated at less than 50 individuals. "Despite the conservation efforts of the last 15 years the cheetah in Iran remains Critically Endangered. Urgent conservation interventions are needed to protect the last remaining individuals." Khalatbari concluded.

Intervention, necessity or need?

As a result, some Iranian biologists believe in a new level of interventions such as captive breeding. Department of the Environment also pointed to this program but in a large scale. 

Iranian authorities declared that a semi-natural habitat will be set up in the Ardakan County of Yazd Province to speed up the semi-captive breeding of Asiatic Cheetah. About 35,000 hectares of Darreh Anjir Wildlife Refuge is considered for this purpose as the exclusive home of the world's most vulnerable big cats.

"DoE will pursue a new level of interventions by launching a captive breeding program along with ongoing protection efforts and threat mitigation," Mohammad Sadeq Farhadinia, a member of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Cat Specialist Group, was quoted as saying by Mehr news agency in March 2018.

However, we must remember some worrying trends are emerging especially in South Africa as the largest exporter of ambassador cheetahs. The rate of captive breeding has been raised in Africa and resulted in different concerns. Firstly, cat specialists are becoming doubtful about the plan.

Louise de Waal released his report on Conservation Action Trust and addressed to concerns e.g. fear of illegal cheetah trade, signs of losing vital ranging instincts in captive cheetahs, increasing the number of wild cheetahs' captures because of purer genes to prevent inbreeding, boosted chance of cheetah cub petting and focusing on financial gains more than conservation terms.

Now one has to ask, did we notice the warnings?    

It seems just emotion is the matter, as swarajya, an Indian monthly print magazine and online daily, has pointed "Large number of cheetahs were captured from the wild and kept in the hunting grounds of Indian maharajas. But the problem is that cheetahs never breed in captivity". What was the problem? It sounds the impact of many untold lessons has been neglected.

Step by step

Captive breeding and reintroduction of cheetahs still baffles scientists, so heeding the nuances is pivotal. The dilemma of habitat conservation is one of the oldest priorities in Iran- that of competition between experts to introduce ideas like reintroduction. A large proportion of the land and the water loss. Therefore, the scope of planning must shift to habitat conservation instead of reintroduction projects. 

Unfortunately, when it comes to saving Asiatic cheetahs, many think the only way they can help is by criticizing the current conservations plans. Meanwhile, conflicts between Iranian conservationists are escalating.

Inflammation of extinction ended in some non-holistic representations. Unfortunately, even non-experts enter the debate of cheetahs. Jamshid Parchizadeh and Samual T. Williams in a joint letter to the journal Nature mentioned that just 43 individuals are left in Iran. But formal data runs counter to these sort of assumptions and says the number of remaining Asiatic cheetahs can be estimated at almost 50 just based on the sightings.

In light of this, we need to remind ourselves how imperiled the cheetah today finds itself. “One excellent example is Amur leopard. The species was down to 30 individuals until few years ago. Some conservationists were advocating for capture of the remaining individuals and captive breeding. However, the Russian government established the Land of Leopard National Park and now the numbers increased up to over 100 individuals due to serious conservation actions,” said Arash Ghoddousi, who is based at the Humboldt University of Berlin.

A multipronged program

Richard B. Primack in his book “A Premier of Conservation Biology” has pointed to the importance of establishing new populations. "Such establishment programs offer the hope that species now living only in captivity or small wild populations can regain their ecological and evolutionary roles within their biological communities. But establishing programs are unlikely to be effective, however, unless the factors leading to the decline of the original wild populations are clearly understood and eliminated, or at least controlled," Primack said brightly.

Key factors to consider when setting plan for reintroduction consists of allowing sufficient time and space to establish home ranges, reduce the chances of newly released individuals encountering territorial conspecifics soon after release sites outside the home ranges of established individuals, using appropriate and safe fences, eliminating or even wiping out human-mediated causes of mortality gives us lessons from the Phinda Resource Reserve.

Science and art

Ironically, translocation requires intensive human intervention. Translocation does not always work out, because it is a complicated job, as much an art as a science. We must remember, instead of pushing the cheetah to where we want them to go, we have to entice them forward by good habitat management and controlling their main threats such as cars, dogs, and gazelle poachers. However, many headed up threats are indirect and less obvious e.g. habitat loss, environmental damage, and drought, for example, all take a toll.

So, open- ended questions appears: 1) Are Iranian experts overseeing an initiative to bring back the cheetah from extinction? 2) Do we know anything about Asiatic Cheetah's susceptibility to birth defects and other disorders? 3) Why cat specialists say the problem of Asiatic Cheetah is not easy to overlook? 4) We know some populations such as Southern populations are more prone that the latter is in danger of being wiped out. Could we eliminate or at least control the disaster in these sort of habitats? 5) How many of cheetah's main prey were lost? or better say what is the best diet for the world's rarest cats?

And finally, how can we conserve cheetah without knowing basic elements? It seems the rule of thumb doesn't always hold up in the field of wildlife management in Iran.

Unfortunately, concrete thinking has been trailed the existing realities and poor data did not seem to care. A decline in number just ended to suggesting different scenarios as panacea.

Relocation of existing wild collected individuals are associated with the professional team and also a long-term commitment which is not existing at this point for Asiatic Cheetah. And, the question is: Who will accept the risk of losing precious living animals?  

These programs require enough money to capture, raise, monitor, and finally release to the natural habitat. On the other hand, Asiatic cheetah is considered as a highly emotional public issue. And it is important to know, which authority is responsible to answer to all of these criticisms?

Cheetahs are rare, charismatic, and wild. Habitat management and establishment of the current population may be the best hope for conservation of Asiatic cheetah especially at this point. If a dedicated conservationist in the deepest sense of the word suggests ideas like translocation or even has the courage to be knocked out of orbit, he or she must accept the responsibility and shall answer to all of these criticism.  

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