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Cheetahs in Iran; the last stronghold of the Asiatic cheetah.

31/07/2006 00:00:00 news/Irancheetah1
Once distributed from the Indian subcontinent across Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Iran to the Arabian Peninsula and Syria, the Asiatic cheetah is now on the verge of extinction and one of the most endangered members of the cat family in the world.

The last cheetahs in India were shot in 1947. Since then, the Asiatic cheetah has disappeared from most of its former range. In the last 20 years, Iran has been the final stronghold for the Asiatic cheetah, known in Iran as yuz, although there have been occasional reports of cheetahs in Pakistan.

Background in Iran:
Before World War II, the cheetah numbered around 400, ranging in almost all of the steppes and desert areas of the east of the country and a few habitats near the Iraqi border, but after the war marked the widespread slaughter of their essential prey species, the gazelle, resulted in the cheetah population declining greatly in number. In 1956, the gazelle was protected by law and the cheetah followed in 1959. The gazelle and cheetah population recovered in many areas. Cheetah sightings increased in different localities, and in the late 1970s, cheetah numbers were estimated to be 200-300.
 
Cheetah in Kavir National Park. © 2003-2004 Iranian Cheetah Society (ICS).
The 1979 revolution interrupted wildlife conservation for a few years, and many areas were occupied by livestock armed 4WD vehicles and motorbikes that chased desert species, such various gazelles, onager and the cheetah. Gazelles declined in many areas, so the cheetahs moved toward the foothills and mountainous habitats to avoid human persecution.

The cheetahs had to look for a new food source due to the swift reduction in Gazelle numbers, so they targeted wild sheep and goats, which, in their mountain habitat, had not suffered the same pressures as the gazelles. Khosh Yeilagh Protected Area, once considered the best cheetah habitat in Asia, was devastated and the last cheetahs were seen in 1983. The cheetah disappeared from much of its former range and was limited to a few remote areas with a reliable prey population and relative safety.
 
Present Status:
Today the Iranian cheetah population is thought to be about 50-60, restricted to the main desert areas around Dasht-e-Kavir:

1. Ariz &Bafq Protected Area, eastern Yazd province is one of the most important cheetah reserves, with an area of 250,000 ha. The area has large numbers of wild sheep, wild goat and Jebeer gazelle. Persian leopard, the largest subspecies occurs in relative high numbers. It is estimated that there are at least 10 cheetahs in the area, and because of the size of the region; the cheetah density is fairly high compared with the other cheetah reserves. Unfortunately, because of high conflict between humans and the cheetah, two tragedies took place during the past years; in 1994 two cubs were killed and the third captured. Also, in June 2003 three two month old cubs were burned by a local herder.

2. Daranjir Wildlife Refuge: 100 km northeast of the city of Yazd with an area of 150,000 ha. Due to protective measures, the region has recently been improved and herds of Jebeer gazelle, wild sheep and wild goat can be observed. It is estimated that the area is home of around 7-10 cheetahs. In 2002, camera traps twice photographed a mother accompanied by two yearling cubs.

3. Naybandan Wildlife Refuge: 180 km south of Tabas, is the largest reserve in Iran with 1.5 million ha. Naybandan has recently been given legal protection and is known today to hold the highest population of the Iranian cheetah - at least 15. A low population of Jebeer gazelle as well as wild sheep and goats inhabit the area. Furthermore, the striped hyena is the only large carnivore present in the area. Naybandan has been a traditional passage for drug smugglers from the Iran's eastern border with Afghanistan, so that fear of being caught by the smugglers inhibited poachers. Thus the cheetah could survive without protective measurements in the area. At present, preventive activities by the Iranian Army on the Afghan border has limited smugglers’ activities while conservation has been enhanced remarkably by the Iranian Department of the Environment (DOE) in recent years.

4. Kavir National Park: Some 50 km southeast of Tehran, with 670,000 ha. Once called the ‘Iran's Little Africa’, Kavir was the habitat of almost all the Iranian desert species, but after the revolution in 1979 human persecution led to eradication of the onager and a decline in the Persian gazelle to a few dozen. It is estimated that there is a population of less than 10 cheetahs in the area, often seen in the valleys and dried river beds looking for wild sheep and Jebeer gazelle.

5. Khar Turan National Park: Southeast of Shahrud, Semnan province, with an area of 1.4 million ha. Khar Turan is the second largest reserve in Iran, and because of its large size and difficult desert situation, most of its species were able to save themselves against poachers during the critical period of the early 1980s. The area has one of the richest diversities in its mammal species in the country, and has the largest population of onager in Iran as well as a good number of both species of gazelles, wild sheep and wild goat, which ensure cheetah survival. The area is estimated to be home of 12-15 cheetahs and occasional sighting of the animal with cubs indicates a growing population.
 

The Iranian Cheetah Society (ICS)

  • The Iranian Cheetah Society (ICS), an Iranian, non-profit NGO established in Aug 2001, works to save the last Iranian cheetahs,. The society was founded by three young enthusiastic students of natural resources. With their five years experience in studying the cheetah before its official establishment, ICS has made remarkable progress in its activities to save the cheetah in Iran in the past two years. ICS is based in Tehran and has 300 members from all over the country.
  • Its main goals are:
  • • Public awareness about the cheetah and its associated biota through education, mainly in local communities
  • • Reducing human-cheetah conflict by implementing socio-economic programmes
  • • Biological surveys to learn more about the Iranian cheetah
  • • Conservation of the cheetah in its natural habitat, particularly with public participation.
  • ICS has focused a remarkable part of its activities on education, mainly on juveniles and youth, both at local community level, where people are in direct conflict with the cheetah and should co-exist with the cheetah, and also in cities where informing people about this invaluable wealth is so necessary. On the other hand, since less is known about the Asiatic cheetah compared with its African cousin, it needs to be studied in the wild and ICS has paid lots of attention and energy to this. Recent surveys have shown that one of the cheetah's main prey species is wild sheep, and so a plan to study wild sheep behaviour and demography has been undertaken by ICS since winter 2002. Also, long-term surveys have been conducting on wolf and hyena as two main cheetah rivals in Iran since Dec 2001. At present, local education has the highest priority for the Iranian Cheetah Society and fundraising is the most important concern.
Distribution of Cheetahs in Iran. © 2003-2004 Iranian Cheetah Society (ICS).
 
The above 5 areas are fragmented reserves located in the deserts of the eastern half of the country, but it does not seem that cheetah range is merely limited to these five. Since August 2002, the Iranian Cheetah Society (ICS) has begun to carry out continuous surveys to establish cheetah existence in 4 more areas in Esfahan and Yazd provinces between Kavir National Park in the north and Dareh Anjir to the south with a total area of more than one million ha:

1. Abbas Abad Protected Area: A 400,000 ha desert habitat near the city of Naein. The reserve is a habitat for wild sheep, wild goat and a few Jebeer gazelle. 4 cheetah tracks were found between October 2002 – November 2003. Confirmed cheetah sightings in 2006. It is now thought they may be 10 or so in the area.
2. Ardestan Free Area: Many reports of cheetahs in the area, though one sighting was proved to be a lynx.
3. Desert Free Area of Northern Karkas Mountain and Mooteh WR, the best gazelle habitat in the country and a possible cheetah area.
4. Siahkuh Protected Area: Recently established to protect by law, the 200,000 ha reserve is located near the city of Ardakan. Fairly good populations of prey species occur and a there have been a few reliable reports on cheetah sightings, including a mother with two cubs. Moreover, recently in Miandasht WR, near the northeastern border of Khar Turan, a group of three (mother with two yearling cubs) were filmed.

Today, the Iranian cheetah is on the verge of extinction. Since Sep 2001, the joint project, ‘Conservation of the Asiatic Cheetah and its Associated Biota’ has been launched by the Iranian DOE and UNDP/GEF in which the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), IUCN Cat Specialist Group (CSG) and Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) have been involved.

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