The cheetah’s speed is legendary. As possibly the swiftest mammal that has ever lived (extinct relatives of the cheetah were likely not as speedy), there is nothing on earth it cannot out-run. Nothing in nature, that is. Unfortunately, for all its extraordinary high-speed adaptations, the cheetah has no evolutionary solution for modern traffic. Among the many dangers faced by cheetahs, collisions with vehicles rank among the top threats to an especially endangered population: the unique Asiatic cheetahs of Iran. The sobering finding is part of a newly published, comprehensive overview by Panthera and a team of Iranian colleagues on the status of this unique and critically endangered sub-species.
Genetically distinct and isolated from its African counterparts for at least 32,000 years, the Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus ssp. venaticus) once roamed from the Red Sea coast to eastern India. Today, the entire global population of the Asiatic cheetah—a vanishingly few 50 animals—lives in central Iran. The sub-species’ current range is a fraction of its original extent yet it still inhabits a vast area the size of the United Kingdom, around 242,500 square kilometers [93,000 square miles]. That is a lot of space for cheetahs, but most of it is unlike anything the species usually inhabits; deserts, arid mountain massifs and barren salt plains dominate the habitat of cheetahs in Iran. And despite the inhospitality, so do people–with their livestock, dogs and cars.
Between 2001 and 2012, the period over which we compiled all known records of cheetahs in Iran, at least 33 cats were killed by people and their vehicles. Poachers and livestock herders (and their large, aggressive herd dogs) killed the most cheetahs, followed by collisions on roads. 33 cheetahs may not sound like a great deal over the study’s 12 years, but this a minimum estimate. Undoubtedly, more cheetahs died without coming to the attention of the authorities, suggesting that, conservatively, humans intentionally or accidentally kill perhaps 10 percent of Iranian cheetahs on average each year. Add in natural causes of death and the pressure on this tiny population is severe.
As grave as the cheetah’s situation is, it could easily have been far worse. In 2001, Iran’s Department of Environment (DoE) and the United Nations Development Programme launched the Conservation of the Asiatic Cheetah Project, (CACP), a major conservation effort that designated specially protected cheetah reserves, appointed dedicated cheetah guards, and provided new 4WDs, motorbikes and other materiel to ensure robust protection. Without this comprehensive program, which continues to this day, the Asiatic cheetah might already have vanished. But, as our paper notes, development pressure in the form of more livestock, highways, and mining has grown over the same period, meaning that the DoE’s efforts are only just holding back the tide. The cheetah’s population will never grow and will remain dangerously tiny- at best- without a renewed, even greater commitment.
With our Iranian colleagues, we recommend first addressing the most immediate threats to cheetahs. Herd dogs need to be seriously reduced in or entirely removed from protected areas. Wildlife overpasses and underpasses should be considered for particularly dangerous stretches of road in cheetah country. And the illegal hunting of cheetah prey, still a problem in much of Iran, needs to be curtailed. The Iranian Department of Environment and its NGO partners have already demonstrated the necessary expertise and dedication to avert extinction of this extraordinary cheetah. A massive resurgence in political will, conservation effort, and local and international funding is now required to go beyond the status quo, and bring about a dramatic recovery of the cheetah across Iran.
Dr. Luke Hunter is the President of Panthera, the only organization in the world devoted exclusively to the conservation of the world’s wild cats. He has worked on the ecology and conservation of wild carnivores since 1992., including on projects 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 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). He is a committee member of the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative.
Panthera and its partners have been supported by National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative.