By Faranak Bakhtiari

Asiatic cheetahs’ return to birthplace: semi-captive living or reaching end of life?

April 7, 2020 - 17:54

TEHRAN – The Department of Environment (DOE) is transferring three Asiatic cheetahs kept in Tehran’s Pardisan Park to Semnan province where they have been born to live the rest of their life in semi-captive conditions because they are no longer able to reproduce.

The world's fastest mammal, capable of reaching speeds of 120 kilometers per hour, once stalked habitats from the eastern reaches of India to the Atlantic coast of Senegal, once their numbers have stabilized in parts of southern Africa, but they have practically disappeared from northern Africa and Asia.

The subspecies "Acinonyx jubatus venaticus", commonly known as the Asiatic cheetah, is critically endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, with fewer than 50 believed to remain in Iran.

On Monday, the DOE made a big shock to the country's environmental community by deciding to hastily transfer three Asiatic cheetahs to their new detention center without informing experts, environmental activists, and the media.

It seems that these activities are being carried out to implement the semi-captive keeping of the cheetahs, which have been criticized by experts many times before.

The project team is said to have put a lot of stress on the cheetahs after several unsuccessful firing of anesthesia darts due to lack of previous experience.

According to Iman Memarian, a wildlife veterinarian, a drug called medetomidine is used to anesthetize cheetahs, which at a dose of 5cc, the female cheetah may fall into a coma, cardiac and respiratory arrest, or may eventually die.

The project, which began in the last days of March, is being carried out in violation of protocols related to captive cheetahs.

The release of images of non-standard boxes has aroused the concern of environmentalists, who say the boxes, which were intended to transport cheetahs through a pickup truck to Semnan province, will kill the animals.

Efforts by journalists to communicate with experts and officials of the DOE and to question the objectives and motivations for the project have not been successful, and they have decided to publish an open letter warning of the irreparable consequences, according to Mehr news agency.

The 24-hour challenge of the DOE sending the cheetahs to their birthplace has only ended with the transfer of the youngest cheetah, Iran, which has been released in its habitat, Turan National Park in complete health.

Delbar, Kushki, and Iran reach the bitter end 

Two female Asiatic cheetahs, Delbar and Iran, and the male one, Kushki, have lived in the capital for the past few years.

In 2015, Delbar once became pregnant naturally but sadly lost her cub.

Last year (March 2018-March 2019), she was physically prepared for mating with Kushki, however, possibly due to Kushki’s old age, the two didn’t breed.

Delbar underwent artificial insemination earlier this year (starting on March 21), which turned out unsuccessful.

The younger female cheetah named “Iran” which is three years old and her pregnancy possibility is high, is also transferred to a fenced area in the central part of the country.

Natural mating and artificial insemination have been already tried for Asiatic cheetahs kept in captivity, which sadly failed. Now, fertilizing the female Asiatic cheetah is nearly impossible due to their old age.

Keeping cheetahs in captivity not helpful 

Memarian, who was an opponent of the plan, said that it was a big mistake to focus on the implementation of the semi-captive reproduction scheme, adding that the number of Persian cheetahs was not high enough to raise hope for reproduction in captivity.

He said it was wrong to compare the natural conditions of Iran and South Africa in prescribing reproduction in semi-captive conditions for Persian cheetahs, adding that in South Africa, almost all natural areas and parks have been fenced, and several thousand cheetahs live in the wild. 

In South Africa’s transfer of cheetahs, only one out of every four cheetahs survives, and in addition to the dangers of moving, keeping them in semi-captive conditions, health management is much more difficult, he highlighted.

 Cheetahs born in captivity cannot adopt to nature

“Whether reproduction in captivity or semi-captive conditions does not save the Asian Cheetah from extinction, because even this type of reproduction has not been successful in South Africa,” he said, referring to the exorbitant costs of implementing the project in nature. 

He went on to note that more importantly, cheetahs born in these conditions can not return to nature.

Roads, stray dogs, habitat fragmentation, and hunting are among the reasons behind cheetahs being endangered, and the DOE’s focus should be on protecting habitats. However, cheetah habitats, especially the corridors, are generally empty, and only cheetahs are reported to live in the Turan National Park habitat, he explained.

This is while, Alireza Jourabchian, Conservation of the Asiatic Cheetah Project founder, told Tasnim in October 2019 that unfortunately, mismanagement severely affected conservation projects.

Asiatic cheetah born in captivity will never learn the skills to survive in nature and will not be able to reproduce in nature, thus a captive breeding plan cannot be considered as a measure to prevent the extinction of the cheetahs, he lamented. 

Protecting cheetahs in natural habitats more useful

Mohammad Ali Yektanik, an environmental expert who opposes the project, told Mehr about the reasons for his opposition to the project “Previous phases of the captive cheetah breeding project have failed, despite the heavy costs.”

“According to Shahaboddin Montazemi, the director of the wildlife office of the DOE, the chances of success are very small at two percent, so given the current management environment in the country, insisting on continuing to implement such a plan with existing priorities to save the remains of Asian cheetahs in Iran is not logical,” he added.

The shortage and, in some cases, the lack of workforce and the minimum necessary facilities for wildlife protection, what is the need for a budget that only benefits the implementers of the cheetah reproduction plan and does not have a protective function for nature to be repeated with different kinds of justifications?

Environmentalists have repeatedly stated that protecting cheetahs in natural habitats is the top priority, but as the population of cheetahs has not reached the desired level, the organization is considering resolving the crisis and other methods. 

The use of artificial insemination, reproduction in captivity at the Cheetah reproduction and breeding center in Pardisan Park has been one of the activities that, with its unsuccessful implementation, eventually led environmental officials to take a chance on the project. 

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