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Conservation Efforts For The Asiatic  Cheetah

Wikimedia Commons | Behnam GhorbaniThe Asiatic cheetah is on the verge of extinction.  It is estimated that less than 50 Asiatic cheetahs remain in the wild. Historically they roamed throughout the Indian subcontinent through to Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Iran to the Arabian Peninsula and Syria.  However, today a fragmented habitat of the Iranian plateau remains the only stronghold for this critically endangered species. Although there have been rare sightings of cheetahs across the border in Pakistan.

The Asiatic cheetah is slightly paler and smaller than its African cousin. Both African and Asiatic cheetahs are the fastest mammals on the planet boasting a top speed of 60mph in only 3 seconds.  Rivalling that of most sports cars. Their ability to accelerate at this speed enables them to catch prey with relative ease.

The consequences of unregulated hunting

Since the end of World War II there were an estimated 400 cheetahs left in the wild. This number has since shrunk to as little as 50. Man is responsible for the majority of cheetah decline. Unregulated hunting wiped out the Asiatic cheetah within central Asia and consequently the species became extinct in Afghanistan in the 1950’s. The last reported death of a cheetah in Turkmenistan was in 1984.

However the poaching of antelope, the cheetah's preferred prey across India, Pakistan and Iran is believed to be the main reason for the plight of the Asiatic cheetah. Antelope population decline has consequently led to livestock predation and more frequent contact with famers that will not hesitate to injure or kill cheetahs. In addition road accidents are responsible for 40% of all Asiatic cheetah mortalities.

Desertification has further fragmented the cheetah’s natural habitat and future industrial development threatens existing patches potentially causing a further decline. In Iran the two main iron and coal mining sites lie within the same area where the two largest wild cheetah populations exist, excluding national parks. Infrastructure and road traffic have subsequently squeezed cheetah populations into tighter pockets where they are now more exposed to poaching.

Wikimedia Commons | Ehsan KamaliIranian footballers contributed to conservation efforts

Cheetah conservation efforts have varied. For example in 2014 during the FIFA World Cup  the Iranian football team displayed jerseys with the Asiatic cheetah on, hoping to spread awareness and highlight the urgency for conservation. In addition to this countless crowdfunding was set up and ‘National Cheetah Day’ was established on the 31st of August. Despite these efforts the cheetah’s population has continued to decline. Western Iran used to hold three main areas for wild cheetah populations however according to Urs Breitenmoser, a big cat specialist, there are none remaining.  The south is too fragmented for cheetahs to meet and breed. Only in the north is there enough evidence that suggests cheetah populations can be sustained.

Efforts to conserve Asiatic cheetahs have proven incredibly difficult. Economic sanctions by the Iranian government since 1980 restricting money transfers have complicated the issue. Furthermore, the government has made significant budget cuts to the environmental department and therefore protecting key areas of cheetah habitat has been very tough.  The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) provided support for the Asiatic cheetah conservation project; through being a UN agency it therefore allowed money and aid into the country more easily. In 2001 the UN provided the Asiatic cheetah conservation project with a sizeable donation amounting in the region of $800,000.

Flickr | Henry BushIs Iran about to lose another big cat species?

Thanks to the aid provided by the UN the project was able to conduct more research and gain a better understanding of the remaining population and consequently increased protection in specific areas and even established new areas for cheetah protection.  

Phase two commenced in 2009 and unfortunately ended last year due to budget challenges. Unfortunately UNDP was unable to extend the project which has left the future and conservation of the Asiatic Cheetah in serious doubt. Without financial support from the UN the Asiatic cheetah’s future looks bleak. Every country in Asia has allowed this species to become extinct except Iran. Somehow they have held on to the last known wild population. We need to get international agencies to get help to the country’s conservationists before it’s too late.

The alternative is simple failure to conserve this species in the next few years that will result in likely extinction and we risk losing one of the most dynamic and misunderstood species of felidae on the planet. Iran has already lost 2 other big cat species, the Caspian tiger and Asiatic lion during the 20th Century. Does the Asiatic cheetah face the same fate? Only time will tell.

By Matt Couldwell - Online Media Intern

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