Changing Planet

Finding the Last Cheetahs of Iran

This week, National Geographic magazine published extraordinary new images of wild Asiatic cheetahs in Iran. Shown cresting a barren, mountainous ridge devoid of green, Iran’s cheetahs could not be any more distant–geographically and ecologically–from their African counterparts pictured in the same article navigating tourist traffic-jams on Kenyan grasslands. And unlike Kenya’s spectacularly photogenic cheetahs, Iranian cats are virtually invisible. Intensely shy, scattered like grains of sand over Iran’s vast central plateau, and hovering on the edge of extinction, they are essentially impossible to see.

That National Geographic was able to photograph these rarest of cheetahs is testament to 11 years of conservation work by the Iranian Department of Environment. In 2001, with support from the United Nations Development Programme, the DoE initiated a comprehensive long-term program to pull the cheetah back from the extinction cliff. The ambitious “Conservation of the Asiatic Cheetah Project” (CACP) designated five landscapes as specially protected cheetah reserves and provided the resources to make them safe havens–dozens of dedicated cheetah guards, new vehicles, motorbikes and other materiel. Alongside the necessity of vigorous protection, the CACP mounted a nationwide campaign to draw attention to the cheetah’s plight. Back then, most Iranians had no idea they were the custodians of the last Asiatic cheetahs on earth. By the time of my first visit to Iran in 2004, that had already changed. When buying supplies in a roadside store in a tiny, remote desert town, I saw a CACP poster pinned behind the counter showing Marita, then the only Asiatic cheetah in captivity (Marita died in 2003: Koshki, shown on page 115 of the magazine, is one of two captive Asiatic cheetahs in the world today). The ancient shopkeeper proudly told me his village was in the heart of yuz palang country and that only Iran has the cheetahs; he was correct on both counts.

The surveys corroborate what Iranian biologists have long suspected: There are fewer than 100 Asiatic cheetahs left on Earth.

The CACP also initiated the first scientific surveys of cheetahs. Assisted by the Wildlife Conservation Society and later my organization Panthera (both groups still cooperate with the Department of Environment in conserving the cheetah), the CACP began camera-trapping. Camera-traps–remote triggered cameras that silently capture images of anything passing by–were unknown in Iran prior to the CACP. Today, the project has completed 24 massive surveys logging almost 34,000 camera-trap nights (10 individual camera-traps running for one night equals 10 trap-nights). From the original five core areas known to harbor cheetahs, they have been confirmed from a further 10 sites in the country. Evidence of residency and breeding including terrific pictures of young cubs, is now confirmed from 10 of the 15. Incredibly, even though this herculean effort has produced tens of thousands of images of wildlife, cheetahs have been photographed on fewer than 400 occasions in more than a decade. The surveys corroborate what Iranian biologists have long suspected–there are fewer than 100 Asiatic cheetahs left on Earth.

Formidable Challenge

It was these incredibly long odds that faced Geographic photographer Frans Lanting when he hit the ground in April 2011. I accompanied Frans on this first expedition to help find promising sites for his high-end version of the camera-trap–digital SLRs linked to multiple flashes and inch-wide sensor beams positioned with blow-torch precision to trigger the shot. Everything hinged on being able to anticipate where the cheetahs would move. It was a formidable challenge given the arid enormity of their desert habitat where identifying cheetah-friendly locations felt like looking for pennies on a sandy beach. Not only that, Iranian cheetahs live at the lowest density recorded anywhere for the species, one to two cats per 1,000 square kilometers; the same-size area on East African plains can hold 100 cheetahs.  So, even if we found a site with promise–a freshwater spring, scent-marking tree or natural trail–it might be months before a cheetah happened along.

Fortunately for us, the expedition had more expertise than my semi-educated guesses. From their years of surveying, the CACP scientists as well as biologists from the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation and the Iranian Cheetah Society had built up a very detailed picture of how cheetahs move through the forbidding landscape. Iranian field knowledge was the reason the mission had any chance at all. Guided by their know-how, our desert trip became a whirlwind “greatest hits” tour of good cheetah sites, the best of which Frans was able to select for his cameras. Combining exquisite Iranian field knowledge with Frans’ technical wizardry and perfect composition, the resulting images are a spectacular first.

Iranian field knowledge was the reason the mission had any chance at all.

My hope is that National Geographic’s wonderful photographs bring the predicament of this critically endangered cat to a new audience who, like most Iranians a decade ago, had never heard of the cheetah’s existence in the country. I also hope the photos celebrate the dedication of the Iranian Department of Environment, the CACP staff and Iran’s energetic NGO community to conserving the cheetahs. Here in the West, we are rarely given such a positive glimpse into Iran without the over-heated rhetoric of politics. As the only country on Earth that has managed to keep this remarkable cat alive, Iran deserves to be congratulated.

Photograph by Frans Lanting:

Rescued as a cub from the hands of a poacher, five-year-old Koshki grew up in a reserve in northeast Iran. He’s one of only two Asiatic cheetahs living in captivity. A thick tuft of fur on his shoulders, needed for bitter winters on the high steppes of central Iran, sets him apart from African cheetahs.

See more of Lanting’s photography in the November 2012 issue of National Geographic Magazine.

Visit Frans Lanting’s website.


Dr. Luke Hunter is the President of Panthera ( and has worked on the ecology and conservation of wild carnivores since 1992. His current projects include assessing the effects of sport hunting on leopards and lions, working with teams in the Brazilian Pantanal to reduce the conflict between ranchers and jaguars, and the first intensive study of Persian leopards and the last surviving Asiatic cheetahs in Iran. Hunter supervises graduate students working on carnivores around the world including the first comprehensive studies on some little-known species such as African golden cats and Sunda clouded leopards. Luke Hunter has contributed to over 140 scientific papers and popular articles, and has published seven books including ‘Cheetah’ (2003), ‘Cats of Africa: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation’ (2006), ‘A Field Guide to Carnivores of the World’ (2011) and "Wild Cats of the World" (2015). Photo by Steve Winter.
  • Al

    Thank you for your hard work. I hope these great animals will be around for 100s of years.

  • Smith

    What a wonderful article and what a bunch of sane and intelligent people to go there and bring us this news. The media sustained political and military noise over Iran has certainly blinded us to the beauties existing there. I hope Iranian Cheetahs survive and multiply into the future.

    We can not afford any more human induced extinction anywhere on planet earth. We have done enough damage already. I hope Iranians get all the help they can get with their conservation projects specially technical and financial help as there is already an economic war going on against them.

    I would have appreciated a few photos of Iranian Cheetahs here on this article but I guess that was not possible. It was a wonderful read. And congrats to Iranians. Keep up the efforts.

  • Luke Hunter

    Thanks for the kind comments, you can find some great photos and images of Asiatic cheetahs from my last trip to Iran on
    Luke Hunter

  • Smith

    Oh, that was quick. You added the photo. Thanks alot. Its indeed beautiful. Visited your link but the domain seems to be down and the page does not load. Will try again later. Once again thanks very much for your great work there. I think you should write more about your being there with Iranians and on the Cheetahs since we do not know much as all the reports are highly politicized and even militarized.

  • Luke Hunter

    Sorry folks, our website froze just as the news came out on the Asiatic cheetahs, please visit again for pix, videos and more articles

  • geyufeng

    Although i can’t understand the article ,but i respect those people who protect animals.In china ,i watch documents made by national geographic from an early age.Big cats are in danger.I hope they can live on earth as long as human.

  • Mr.TinTin

    Formidable photo for screen! Good job Mr. Hunter…

  • Donna

    Other than cash, why don’t we try to swap cheetahs from Africa and Iran and back again to possibly increase the genetic diversity?

  • behzad

    i am iranain and just said: thank you. very beautiful photos.

  • Shafaeipour Arya

    I am a zoologist and I am very very glad for our Cheetahs.

  • Mohammad Hakimi

    Thanks a lot. Wonderful photos.

  • Meghdad

    I’m keen on Iran’s nature because it’s really attractive for me that we have one of fastest animals in the world.(cheetah)

  • Roshanak

    Mr Smith,

    It is not only economical , As you can find it even in a site like national geographic against Iranians too !.. look at this :

    I am against nuclear power because of it’s dangerous impacts on people and environment but I do not agree with such policies to make pressures against people of Iran even artists and photographers because of their government policies about nuclear power.

    Mr Luke Hunter,

    Thank you very much for your travel and tries. I am an environmental expert and can find your positive motivation through your sentences. anyway I do not have good news for you about Iran wildlife. I hope everything changes in Iran and we have alive Iranians in future to be able to conserve and protect of Iran environment and wild life in front of negative tries of some governmental organizations and powerful persons . but as I said we need alive and hopeful experts not some people who are under pressure from inside of country and outside at the same moment !!!.. I think it is the time for some governments to be honest with people of Iran and talk about Iran and Iranians the same as they act and react to them at least about non political matters like environment or photography !..

    I hope national geographic changes it’s ugly new policy about Iranian photographers if really you think Iranians are people like you with equal rights and advantages !!!..


  • mohamad pourdadsh

    Dear Mr.Hunter-As an Iranian who cares about wildlife on our magnificent planet,I wanted to express my sincere appreciation on behalf of myself and all Iranians,and wish you all the best.Convincing Iranian authorities to give you a few hours of their national tv programs to introduce your cause and concerns on Iranian Yuz(cheetah) would be very useful for educating Iranian public and winning their support.Thank you Mr.Hunter.

  • Amir Sadeghi

    Dear Luke,

    The report and the photos are magnificent. Thanks for bringing this into attention that there is more to be seen beyond crazy politics.

  • adm

    ๑۩۞۩๑::..بزرگترین انجمن فرهنگی، تفریحی سنقر..::๑۩۞۩๑
    very very Nice… Thanks… @};-

  • Luke Hunter

    Im sorry I have not responded to any comments, we have been without power all through last week! Thank-you to everyone for their kind comments.

    I would like to address Roshanak’s important comment on Oct 29. I cannot speak for National Geographic policies (I dont not work for NGS: I work for Panthera) but I am sure this restriction reflects US government laws which restrict ‘commerce’ with some countries including Iran. This is unfortunate but, in this case, it means NG would not be legally permitted to award the prize to someone from Iran (or anyone from the other countries in that list).

  • arash

    Awesome article. In a country where people’s lives are cheep and its government doesn’t even care about human rights, its good to know that there are people who are dedicating their time and afford to keep the last Asiatic cheetahs alive. These cats are nothing like their Africans cousins, genetically and physically they are different so its very important to keep them from the demise of Caspian Tigers and Persian lions.

  • arash
    please donate
    iranian cheetah society is NGO (non-goverment organization) so you can be sure that the iranian mullas aren’t stealing your money and its actually being used to save the asiatic cheetas

  • Marlene duarte

    This are good facts about cheetahs

  • Marlene duarte

    This are good facts about cheetahs ❤❤❤

  • Marlene duarte

    What is your name Luke hunter?

  • Emma

    Firstly I would like to congratulate all your efforts in helping to preserve such a delicate population and also in educating the public about such an elusive animal.

    Thankfully now Iranian biologists and conservation foundations are getting the acknowledgement they deserve. As a Masters student in Wildlife Biology and Conservation, Asiatic cats such as cheetahs and lions are not new to me but sometimes the general public are puzzled when they here of lions in India and cheetahs in Iran. But as was mentioned I hope these photos will reach new audiences and will make people more aware about such cat populations in Asia!

    Well done to the Iranians for their hard work, sending my appreciation from rainy Edinburgh! 🙂



  • Roshanak

    Mr Luke Hunter,

    Thank you very much for your reply . I know it but anyway in non political sites specially a famous one in geography and environment and related sciences sucks!.. My complain is not about prize but about many photographers who can not join and share their arts and make positive feelings . Anyway I liked to talk about it however I knew the reason.. ; ) ..

    I hope after recently disappointing news about these numbers of these species and negative sings, better protection policies save them . They are not only for Iran . they belong to the world and everybody will be happy to find there are some Iranian cheetahs who are continuing to their life in Iran !..

  • Iman

    this is very good

  • sadegh


  • Nandu

    I was 12 years old, I think. When I first learnt that there were Cheetahs in India long ago and had become extinct long before I was even born. Thanks to the hours spent watching national geographic I suppose, the cheetah was my favourite animal. I remember how terrible I felt that day. I become sad when I think about them even now. Only today did I learn by accident that the cheetahs still survive in Iran, I had assumed that the Asiatic cheetahs were extinct everywhere. I can’t tell you how happy I am. Congratulations to all those trying to preserve these beautiful creatures for the successes you’ve had so farand good luck ahead.

    I want to thank all those involved. In the generations to come many more will have a chance to see them and fall in love with them thanks to your hard. Kudos.

  • Kim

    Thank you so much for your very hard work. I wish animals wouldn’t become extinct, but still wouldn’t be overpopulated. Cheetahs are beautiful, graceful, and wonderful big cats of this lovely Earth. I don’t want them to disappear. I would be very sad T.T

  • Yvonne Bashar

    Thank you Luke for such an interesting article and your hard work. I suppose it´s not an easy job for a zoologist, journalist or photograper to explore how an Iranian cheetah lives in a war torn country with it´s economy consentrated on natural resources like oil, nuclear power and desert topography. How big is the area where a cheetah can live? Is there any green forest at all, any tree to climb or high grass to hide in when a cheetah is hunting for food?

  • AK

    I wish there was a word wide animal protection . This animal is very much in-danger in Iran like many other ones and no one is
    relay allowed to protect them. Please help.

  • fariborz shokrian

    I am so happy because heared about iranian chittas and thanks from people who take care of animals in iran.

  • Jamesian

    Such pretty creatures i would cry if they gone extinct

  • lesley

    i never want us to loose any of our big cats in this world i want many of my family to get to see them.

  • soheil shoeibi

    It’s not the last cheetahs



  • Buck

    i feel sorry for these things, i knew about them since i was five and i thought they were extinct but there not and i’ll do all in my power to spread the news

  • jack


  • reza gholamipour

    thanks for NG

  • Warning

    5 1 and unsc and other world power say true!!!
    Iran is dangr!!!

  • xport

    oooo my goooood


    Thank you
    Really thank you
    In particular, Mr. Farhadi Nia
    From site
    It was beautiful
    Thanks again

  • orpheas

    it is unbelivible and tragic how we think that can command nature!!

  • Peyman

    WoOoW !
    nice pix 🙂 we called them “YUZ” ( phonetic like “use” ) and they are not asiatic cheetahs any more .. they just find in iran .. they are persian cheetahs ..

  • babak

    tnx for covering iranian cheetah .

  • donald rege

    More conservation needs to be done and whenever I see these photos I wonder if in the near future our offsprings will look at them as the only evidence of the existence of these wonderful cats,indeed we should work together to prevent such elegance that paints nature from joining the league of dinosores

  • Hashem

    Thank you for covering animals such as this beautiful and splendid one. It will be really a pity the next generations would not be able to see them in nature anymore.

  • Anahita

    Thank you so much for your very hard work. I wish animals wouldn’t become extinct. Cheetahs are beautiful, graceful, and wonderful big cats of this lovely Earth. I don’t want them to disappear. I would be very sad.

  • Anahita

    tnx for covering iranian cheetah

  • Av

    Thank you very much. Cheetahs are like my life i love them i would do anything to keep them alive. Go cheetahs!

  • Shaharazahd

    Wow, so full of information! I love this article, but I would have liked some more pictures. I am fascinated with cheetahs, mak some more articles about them, please.

  • Shaharazahd

    PS. cheetahs are awesome! Anybody else reading this, help the earth! Don’t litter, and make a difference!

  • amirmohammad

    hi.,iam from iran i love the cheeta but all of the people of word have to help to iran that we have got cheeta too.thanks

  • payam

    thanks a lot
    thanks to UN now more people in Iran concentrated on Asiatic cheetahs

  • kanjaya

    i am from south africa i see cheeaths quit often they are my life! so please can we keep them alive

  • Becca J.

    this article really helped me with my science class project. Also i really like cheetahs so PLEAZ help keep them alive! (also tigers!)

  • shahriar

    I love Nature , especially Animals , Keep them safe for the sake of God.Don’t u agree ?

  • milad

    Save out Cheetahs please

  • Elden

    Cheetahs are my favorite animal!!!
    I don’t like any other animal exept them.
    If the cheetahs ever went extinct I would be very unhappy.
    So thank you for all your hard work to try and help them not to become extinct.

  • edson santos

    thank you people

  • samantha

    are Cheetahs really endangered?

  • REZA

    thanks for saving wild animals

  • karim shami

    well for the swedish guy i tell him, the area is as big as your country and iran is not in a state of war, its a different culture
    but if u have money u can work and maneuver easily in iran.(their local flights are creepy u would prefer trains or ordinary vehicles)

  • David

    thanks a lot for vovering iranian cheetah. please they need to be saved. there are also many other fascinating animals from cat family in Iran.

  • Amir hossain

    TANK U…..

  • Anna

    Why do people want to kill cheetahs in the wild? They are beautiful creatures and should not be extinct. Cheetahs are my fav animal and I don’t want them to go away. So people save Cheetahs from extinction.

  • Aaron

    big cats are my favourite animals especially cheetahs, let’s join hands to save them i am ready to help the move with what little i have, i become very happy when watching cheetahs attacking their prey during hunt

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