Iran moves to save last Asiatic cheetahs

Iran moves to save last Asiatic cheetahs

Iran moves to save last Asiatic cheetahs

Iranian environmentalists have mobilised to protect the world's last Asiatic cheetahs, estimated to number just 50 and faced with the threats of becoming road kill, a shortage of prey and farmers' dogs.

"The last time our photo traps caught a cheetah here, it was two years ago. But we're sure they are still in the region," said Rajab Ali Kargar, deputy head of the National Protection Project for the Asiatic Cheetah.

His camp is just a stone's throw from an old royal hunting pavilion in the Garmsar area of Semnan province, around 120 km south of Tehran, but these days the focus is on preservation rather than killing.

The world's fastest land animal, capable of reaching speeds of 120 km per hour, once stalked habitats from the eastern reaches of India to the Atlantic coast of Senegal. Their numbers have stabilised in parts of southern Africa, but they have practically disappeared from northern Africa and Asia.

The subspecies "Acinonyx jubatus venaticus", commonly known as the Asiatic cheetah, is critically endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, mostly due to past hunting.

Iran launched its protection project in 2001 with the support of the United Nations "when we realised Iran was the last country to have any Asiatic cheetahs," said Hooman Jokar, who heads the programme.

It set up a network, now numbering 92 specially trained park wardens, who cover a total of six million hectares in central and northern Iran. "Every day, we cover hundreds of kilometres to track wild animals in the park," said warden Reza Shah-Hosseini, as some 20 gazelles galloped past behind him.

There were 20 sightings of the cheetah in Semnan province last year. "Many think that without this programme the cheetah would have totally disappeared from Iran," said Jokar.

It was thought for a time that the cheetahs had been wiped out, until they were found to have retreated into the central desert regions.

Three major problems have befallen the Asiatic cheetah in recent time: cars, farmers and having nothing to eat. "When we launched the project, the biggest danger was the lack of prey," said Jokar.

The team focused on building up numbers of gazelles and rabbits for the cheetahs to eat, which has been largely successful.  "Today, the cheetahs leave their zones and approach villages. Farmers and their dogs kill them to protect their herds," said Jokar.

A pack of dogs can overpower a cheetah, he said.

At least 20 cheetahs have been killed in road accidents over the past 16 years.

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