Can the Iranian cheetah outrun extinction?

With only 50 adult Asiatic cheetahs left in the wild, Fota Wildlife Park – the most successful breeder of cheetahs in Europe – is lending its expertise to help the species survive

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The Asiatic cheetah is a subspecies that once roamed across much of Asia. Now, only 50 adults remain in the wild, in Iran. The director of Fota Wildlife Park in Cork, Sean McKeown, is lending his expertise to help this rare and distinctive animal.

He has visited Iran to give advice on setting up a captive breeding programme, starting off with an adult male and female in a research facility in Tehran.

It might seem an unusual Irish expertise, but Fota knows cheetahs. The park has bred more than 200 and is the most successful breeder of cheetahs in Europe. Visitors can today see 11 individuals of the east African variety.

But Iranian cheetahs live in a vast arid landscape, nothing like the distinctive open grassland or woodland savannahs of Africa. In historical times Iran had lions and tigers and so is acutely aware of the importance of conserving the cheetah, says McKeown.

“Iranians are proud to be the only people who managed to conserve the Asiatic cheetah,” says Dr Luke Hunter, renowned cheetah expert and president of the cat conservation charity Panthera in the US. He assisted with the first genetic studies of Asiatic cheetahs and confirmed the group as a separate subspecies: they have been isolated from African cheetahs for at least 30,000 years.

 

Lean and skeletal

Asiatic cheetahs are slimmer, lighter and slightly shorter than their African brethren. Their short summer coat makes them look incredibly lean and skeletal; those living above the snow line develop a luxuriant, pale coat as winter sets in. “They’re extreme in terms of what cheetahs look like,” says Hunter.

Less than 50 years ago Iran had perhaps 400-500 cheetahs, but since the Iranian revolution in 1979 the numbers of two gazelle species fell drastically due to poaching and loss of habitat, thus reducing the cheetahs’ source of food.

If their prey is well protected, Hunter believes the Iranian cheetah population will respond well and there could be 200 in a few decades. However, it is critical that the population remains in contact. “If the 50 [alive at the moment] split into two groups of 25, the risk to each population would be suddenly magnified,” leaving them more vulnerable to disease or persecution.

McKeown, the studbook keeper for cheetahs in Europe, says for genetic viability 300 individuals would be more ideal. “When an individual mates, only half its genetic diversity gets passed to the next generation. If it breeds successfully once, you lose genetic material. In small populations, this can have a big effect.”

Asiatic cheetahs once had a continuous distribution across the Middle East, across the Arabian peninsula, and throughout central Asia, as far north as Turkmenistan and into central India. The last populations outside Iran faded away in the 20th century.

The Iranian plateau is safari-like and includes hyenas, leopards and gazelle. It is the only place where cheetahs share a habitat with grey wolves and possibly brown bears, in northern parts of the plateau.

“It’s a fascinating ecosystem, incredibly arid,” says Hunter. “But it’s the mountain ranges cheetahs depend on.” They commute across salt flats, sandy deserts and gravel plains, but there isn’t enough prey in those areas. The mountains get the rainfall and the vegetation there supports the hunter and hunted.

Cheetahs are part of Persian heritage and, during his first trip to the area in 2004, Hunter recalls the owner of a little roadside café being extremely proud to live in the home of the Asiatic cheetah.

 

Rescued cub

A few years back, Hunter helped retrieve a male cub from a remote village in eastern Iran, now one of the adults in Pardisan Park, Tehran. A herder had spotted a female with cubs and chased them on his motorbike until one of the cubs collapsed. Persecution is now rare. The government and department of the environment have been committed to saving the cheetah and led successful education campaigns.

Hunter has reservations about a captive breeding programme for cheetahs. He doubts if big cats can be successfully released and whether the environment could sustain them.

“They are living in Iran now at their capacity and that is limited by their prey. The most effective way of conserving cheetahs is just to protect prey. Then the cheetahs will breed for themselves,” he says.

However, McKeown believes a captive-bred population could offer a valuable insurance policy. “Before we moved the animals from out near the reserve, we realised that another cheetah had been outside the enclosure,” he explains. “It might be possible to design an enclosure that allows a male to come in and breed with a captive female and go back to the wild. So there are things you can do.”

Hunter believes the high education levels in Iran, government commitment and active non-governmental organisation in the conservation field bodes well for Iran’s cheetahs. There are also more Iranian researchers in the field observing cheetahs and offering a visible deterrent to poachers.

 

RUNNING SCARED: THE THREAT OF LARGER PREDATORS

Cheetahs are built for speed, not strength. “They are not as aggressive or dangerous as a lion or leopard. A wild dog is much more dangerous than a cheetah,” says Fota Wildlife Park director Sean McKeown. This makes cheetahs easier to work with for zoos and field biologists than other large predators.

“If you confront a cheetah it will hiss at you, the hair on their neck goes up and they will stamp their feet on the ground. It’s a bit frightening, but if you take a step forward they will run away,” says McKeown. What you do not do is run yourself.

Lack of strength leaves cheetahs vulnerable to predators such as lions, leopards and hyenas. One study in the Serengeti found only 5 per cent of cheetah cubs survived, with lions the main culprits.

“The Serengeti is a good habitat for cheetahs to hunt, but poor for cheetah mothers to rear cubs. Though that study was done at the peak of a lion population surge,” says Luke Hunter, president of the conservation group Panthera.

The impact of predators such as Persian leopards, wolves and hyenas on the Iranian cheetah is unknown, but one cheetah Hunter radio-collared in Iran was killed by a predator.

In the first such record, two cheetahs (brothers, both radio-collared) had killed an ibex on a rocky slope, but then apparently been ambushed by the leopard.

“It seems the leopard snuck up and surprised them, and one of the cheetahs was unable to get away on the terrain,” he says .

This mountainous landscape could be quite challenging for cheetahs in comparison with, say, the east African savannah.

“We still don’t have enough information about that, but it is possible that competition with other large carnivores in these areas is a challenge for cheetahs,” Hunter says.

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