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Friday
Jun062014

Extinction or survival: what’s in store for the Asiatic Cheetah

Now if I were to ask you the question, where do cheetahs live? You would probably answer Africa, but did you know that the only remaining population of the Asiatic Cheetah lives in Iran? I didn’t until I went to a lecture given by Dr Luke Hunter at the RGS about the huge threats it faces and the conservation efforts that are in place to hopefully save this species from extinction. 

Image courtesy of Henry Bush

Once found across Asia, from Arabia to India, this sub-species has nearly been driven to extinction and now solely exists in small fragmented populations in central Iran. Threats such as reduction in prey due to overhunting, habitat degradation through expanding agriculture and illegal poaching have driven the species extinct in neighbouring countries and now threaten the small number left in Iran. The population is now estimated at around 70-100 individuals, the IUCN Red List classifying this animal as Critically Endangered.  However hope is not lost. . .

Iran has recognised this species as an important asset to the county’s heritage and back in 1959, it received protection status from the hunters union. Within the last decade, the Iranian Government has partnered with conservation charities such as Panthera and the Wildlife Conservation Society to create a programme called the Conservation of the Asiatic Cheetah Project (CACP) in an effort to protect this species from extinction.

 

Before this initiative began, little was known about the Asiatic cheetah, as most previous research has focussed on the African sub-species. CACP tried to establish if cheetahs were living in the few remaining suitable habitats and through these search efforts, the number of protected areas rose from 5 to 14. Game keepers were also employed in these areas to strengthen the enforcement of protection. Techniques such as camera trapping and radio telemetry were used to try and gain a deeper understanding of the species’ spatial ecology and behaviour. Education of the local people also played a critical role as many people confused the cheetah with other large cats living in the area such as the Persian leopard. In order to educate people; posters were displayed in local shops, educational programmes were conducted in local communities and information about cheetahs was released in the local media every month.

Through the efforts of CACP, the population is believed to be on the rise and the number of cheetah deaths has reduced from 1.5 to 0.5 a year. Future efforts are focusing on reducing the number of livestock in protected areas and investigating the genetic diversity of the remaining population. A low genetic diversity resulting from inbreeding could be catastrophic for the remaining cheetahs, as it would make them vulnerable to disease and environmental instability as a lack of variation would make it difficult for the species to evolve and respond to such threats. Recent DNA analysis also suggests that the species is so different from the African subspecies that they cannot be interbred as a means to increase the gene pool. 

Lots of work remains to be done before the Asiatic cheetah reaches a stable population size and is safe from extinction, however recent sightings in October last year of a mother and four cubs have shown that conservation efforts are making an impact. This was the first family spotted in the area and conservationists now hold high hopes for the species persistence.

By Donna Wintersgill

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