Fallen on Hard Times

Fallen on  Hard TimesFallen on  Hard Times

Hovering on the edge of extinction, Iranian cheetahs are virtually impossible to see, which makes numbering their population all the more difficult. Some say there are now no more than 50 of the big cats while others say they number between 70 and 120.

However, one thing is certain: They are now only found in Iran.

The Iranian (or Asiatic) cheetah has become a national symbol. Intensely shy, the cheetah’s 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.

Declining prey populations, trophy hunting and unrestrained development led to the destruction of this majestic creature’s habitat, and now they are only found in Iran, where the level of protection they receive is apparently not enough.

“We lack funding, equipment and park rangers … we have yet to receive a dime of the animal’s protection budget,” Bahman Movadi, deputy for wildlife affairs at the Department of Environment office in South Khorasan Province, told Mehr News Agency.

The provincial DOE manages the Naybandan Wildlife Refuge, which — at 1.5 million hectares — is the largest Asiatic cheetah sanctuary in the country, but there are only nine rangers patrolling the vast expanse.

In 2001, with support from the United Nations Development Program, the DOE initiated a comprehensive and ambitious long-term program, called the Conservation of the Asiatic Cheetah Project (CACP), to pull the endangered species back from the verge of extinction.

“After Naybandan was designated a protected cheetah reserve, we have received nothing from the project’s budget,” the official said, adding that the most pressing issue that needs to be addressed immediately is the lack of camera traps.

The sanctuary needs about 50 cameras, which cost an estimated 750 million rials ($21,500), but the provincial DOE does not have the funds.

“A non-governmental organization had provided us with the cameras we needed a while ago, but they took them back because they needed them elsewhere,” Movadi added.

Less than 40 years ago, approximately 500 cheetahs lived in Iran, but due to poaching and loss of habitat of two gazelle species —which the cheetahs prey on — their numbers fell drastically.

  Predator Becomes Prey

In addition to manmade threats, the Asiatic cheetah’s survival is impacted by larger predators. This makes the presence of well-guarded sanctuaries more essential, given the cheetahs’ scarce population.

Cheetahs are fast, but not necessarily strong. “They are not as aggressive or dangerous as the lion or leopard. A wild dog is much more dangerous than a cheetah,” Sean McKeown, director of Fota Wildlife Park in the Republic of Ireland and a renowned cheetah expert who is lending his expertise to CACP, was quoted as saying by the Irish Times.

Lack of strength leaves cheetahs vulnerable to predators such as lions, leopards and hyenas, but the impact of predators such as Persian leopards, wolves and hyenas, which outnumber the Asiatic cheetah in Iran, is unknown.

Nevertheless, a cheetah which has been radio-collared in Iran was killed by a predator not very long ago suggesting that the cheetah faces risks other than human avarice.