The Asiatic Cheetah, also known as the Iranian Cheetah is one of the most endangered of the world’s big cats
The Asiatic Cheetah, also known as the Iranian Cheetah is one of the most endangered of the world’s big cats. Anatomically similar to its African cousin, the Asiatic Cheetah has seen its numbers plummet from at least two hundred in 1970 to estimates of forty individuals in 2014.
Its habitat range used to span from central Africa, through Arabia and into India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. By the 1950s however the last cheetahs were shot in India and since then their habitat range has contracted in such a way that they are now only found in Iran’s central plateau: a series of closed, dry basins in the centre of the country.
Iran and five Protected Areas in which the Conservation of Asiatic Cheetah Project (CACP) works.
1. Kavir National Park
2. Kha Turan National Park
3. Naybandan Wildlife Refuge
4. Bafq Protected Area
5. Dar-e Anjir Wildlife Refuge
The landscape is a challenging one for mammals and contradicts the view one might have of ideal cheetah habitats. This mountainous terrain is dry and dusty in summer with limited tree coverage and scrub-like grassland dominating. In winter the ground can lie thick with snow which can, in some areas, lead to small seasonal rivers in the thaw.
The impact of human beings on the Asiatic Cheetah population is substantial. The steady reduction in the size of their inhabited area has correlated with an increase in human population and settlement in the region. Prior to the Iranian Revolution from 1978-1979 large areas of the Central Plateau were under protection, holding similar conservation status to National Parks in Europe and North America. Following the revolution, these protection measures were overturned and land that was once reserves began to fill with people, both through new settlements as well as more extensive pastoral farming practices.
In the first written references of the cheetahs in the sixteenth century, through to the 1950s, the cats were hunted and poached for their trophy pelts, for sport and for security when their groups threatened tribal settlements. In the more modern era the primary cause of death for Asiatic Cheetahs is a collision with a vehicle, largely on roads that travel through or very close to protected areas.
(Picture source: Dasht-e Kavir Desert, Iran: onurbwa51)
Now, and with conservation efforts in place, on average one cheetah a year dies as a direct result of human action. In a big population this is not a concern but with Asiatic Cheetahs, where in some localities their numbers may be less than ten, this figure can be cause for unease. Where road deaths are not an issue, the greatest threat to cheetah habitats is loss of the prey on which they rely. Species such as the Persian Ibex, the Jebeer Gazelle and the Dorcus Gazelle may also be hunted by locals but more commonly these prey species themselves face competition from domestic livestock that graze the same areas. Guard dogs belonging to shepherds also disturb the gazelle and have been known to attack and kill these prey too. Local knowledge about the cheetahs, their low numbers and their vulnerability is limited and in some cases young cheetah cubs have been captured and taken for pleasure by locals, unsure of what they were, or indeed their value.
With the encroachment of humans onto cheetah inhabited land, the cats have had to occupy areas more marginal for their intended niche such as the lower valley floors and lower grasslands where other predators reside. This has meant that competition for prey has equally come from other carnivores such as Striped Hyenas, Persian Leopards and the Grey Wolf, leaving the Asiatic Cheetah with fewer feeding opportunities.
As an awareness of Iran’s wildlife and its fragility became more public, so grew the demand for conservation and management plans on the part of the Iranian Government and international non-government organisations. In 2001, the Conservation of Asiatic Cheetah Project (CACP), run by Panthera – an international ‘big cat’ conservation charity – received funding from the Global Environmental Facility, the Iranian government Department of Environment and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to halt and reverse the decreasing numbers of Asiatic cheetahs in Iran.
The focus was on five protected areas (see map above) where it was either known that the cheetahs resided or where they were strongly suspected of residing. The CACP began by training and employing local people as wardens within these areas, with responsibilities for enforcing anti-poaching laws that the Iranian government supported. Severe penalties (up to US$30,000 fines) were issued to those found poaching and education programmes were rolled out to people most likely to come across cheetahs. Most notably the Iranian Department for Environment negotiated with pastoral farmers in the protected areas and purchased from them their traditional grazing rights in an effort to allow these areas to remain as natural as possible.
The CACP brought types of conservation science and techniques to Iran that had not previously been used there before. The first of these techniques was camera trapping. In order to gauge the spread and size of the cheetah population, the wardens had to assess their presence in a series of locations. However, with the known population of Asiatic Cheetahs being very low, and the area under surveillance being very large (as well as the notorious nervousness of the cheetahs around human beings) it was difficult for the wardens to accurately measure their numbers. Instead remote cameras were placed in key areas that would take a photograph when an animal stepped through an infra-red beam or triggered a motion senor attached to the unit. From these images, which were monitored by the wardens, individual cats could be identified and population estimates could be made.
The second new technique used was radio telemetry, introduced in 2004. This was used in order to understand more about the movement patterns of individual cheetahs and allowed wardens to gain a stronger understanding of the needs and migration possibilities of the species. Snare traps were used to temporarily catch cheetahs, allowing wardens to attach a transmitter to each animal. These would emit a regular signal which could be picked up by a mobile radio mast (above) and using the cheetahs’ GPS coordinates, their position mapped. This was primarily carried out in the Bafq Protected Area, setting snares at choke points along routes where cheetahs were known to travel, such as dry river beds.
The use of new conservation techniques heralded some sound survey results. Between 2001 and 2012, 323 photographs of cheetahs were captured by camera trapping and from this set seventy six individuals were identified. With the use of other evidence (such as the recovery of road kills and natural death carcasses) the wardens believed there to have been 106 animals alive during that time, more than had previously been estimated and placing the estimated numbers in 2014 at seventy, continuing its ‘critically endangered’ status according to the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List.
Both the camera trapping and the radio telemetry exercises indicated the Asiatic Cheetah population’s level of dispersal. The techniques told the researchers that the cats roamed over a much wider area than they had previously thought, including at higher altitudes, (putting them into overlapping habitats with the Persian Leopard) and large areas outside of the reserves and protected areas. The telemetry in particular allowed trackers to see where the cheetahs were most likely to cross roads, and legitimised their suggestion of road warning signs being placed at ‘cheetah hotspots’.
Road signs warning drivers to be more wary of Asiatic Cheetahs in the area. (Source: Matt Werner)
Prior to the Iranian government purchasing the grazing rights for pastoral farmers, a lineage of people would use the land inside wildlife reserves seasonally and without question. This practice has now been cut dramatically and alternative grazing sites have been welcomed by the farmers who volunteered to move to other areas. The education plan that ran alongside this initiative has also found success with far more people being able to recognise the Asiatic Cheetah as well as understand its rarity and value. Overall the big cat has gained an elevated status in most parts of Iranian society – even appearing on the football strip of their national team.
While the future of the Asiatic Cheetah is still highly fragile, the species is now in a much stronger position as a result of the collaborative work between the Iranian government and international non-government organisations. From the start of the conservation programme in 2001, there was an agreement that the combined conservation effort would come before any geopolitical tensions between Iranian and foreign governments. This set a strong foundation for the continuation and expansion of the project, something that is being realised by the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, who are now working with Panthera on the next stages of the CACP project.
Unless otherwise stated, all data in the above piece relates to figures taken from Dr Luke Hunter’s lecture (May 2014)
The act of preserving, protecting and managing biodiversity or a resource.
A species that according to the IUCN Red List is likely to become extinct.
An environmental setting that is occupied specifically by a particular species or set of related species.
IUCN Red List
An information source compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, listing the conservation status of the world’s species.
Animals that are bred and raised as part of agricultural processes in order to produce sellable goods.
The particular place and position a species occupies within an ecosystem according to its breeding and feeding needs.
An organisation or body that operates in a not-for-profit and apolitical fashion.
Students can think about the unique physical and human geography of Iran, listing as notable features of the country in groups. They can then suggest reasons why conservation efforts in this country are particularly challenging for wildlife NGOs and how charities like Panthera worked around these issues.
By undertaking some basic research, students should be able to draw a simple food web which involves some of the species mentioned in this article. Looking at the links between the different species, students can then make suggestions for the ways in which humans have affected this food web and how this would have impacted upon the Asiatic Cheetah in particular.
With so few Asiatic Cheetahs left in the wild, the article raises a good discussion point for students about the merits of species conservation versus landscape and ecosystem conservation. A class could be split and asked to develop an argument for each side of the debate.
Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation
Iranian Cheetah Society
International Society for Endangered Cats
Can Eden be restored?
Arid Environments KS5
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