Rare Asiatic Cheetahs Photograhed in Iran

NEW YORK, New York, September 1, 2005 (ENS) - A camera trap set to photograph wildlife in a remote section of Iran has captured images of the largest group of Asiatic cheetahs ever documented in Asia, a team of American and Iranian wildlife scientists said Tuesday.

The pictures show an adult female and her four cubs resting in the shade of a tree in an isolated region in the Dar-e Anjir Wildlife Refuge.

Scientists with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) based at New York's Bronx Zoo, working with scientists at Iran's Department of Environment (DOE) set the camera trap as part of a survey of five protected areas where cheetahs were still believed to exist.

The group found a variety of suitable habitat, but the scientists found that prey species, such as jebeer gazelle and urial sheep, were scarce. The latest photographs hint at the gradual recovery of prey populations.

cheetahs

A family of five Asiatic cheetahs rests in the shade in the Dar-e Anjir Wildlife Refuge. (Photo courtesty I.R.Iran DOE/CACP/WCS/ UNDP-GEF)
"As a species the cheetah is still in dire straits in Iran, so it is extremely encouraging to see an apparently healthy family in their native habitat," said Dr. Peter Zahler, assistant director for WCS's Asia Programs.

"Images like these give hope to conservationists that there is still time to save these magnificent animals," Zahler said.

Once known as "hunting leopards," cheetahs have played an historical role in Iranian culture, as they were trained by its emperors to hunt gazelles in ancient times.

Asiatic cheetahs went extinct throughout much of the Middle East about 100 years ago, though they occurred in Saudi Arabia until the 1950s. They vanished in India in 1947, and the scientists have found "spotty records" that claim the cheetahs ranged in Central Asia as far as Kazakhstan from the 1960s through 1980s.

Today, fewer than 60 cheetahs exist on the entire Asian continent, mostly on Iran's arid central plateau, where the American and Iranian team of biologists has been conducting surveys since 2001.

The survey project as started with a major grant and ongoing support from the United Nations Development Programme's Global Environment Facility.

"Cheetahs in Iran live on a knife-edge in very marginal habitat," said Dr. Luke Hunter, coordinator of WCS's Global Carnivore Program. "The fact that this female has managed to raise four cubs to six months of age is extremely encouraging."

"Hopefully, this indicates there are areas where the cheetah's prey species are coming back, a goal the Iranian DOE and UNDP has been working very hard to achieve," he said.

In the 1970s, estimates of the number of cheetahs in Iran ranged from 100 to 400 animals. But widespread poaching of cheetahs and their prey during the early years of the 1978 revolution, along with degradation of habitat due to livestock grazing, have pushed this predator to the brink of extinction.