Asiatic Cheetah : On the verge of Extinction

Asiatic Cheetah (Drawing by H. Weir. Routledge's Picture Natural History by the Rev. J. G. Wood, engraved by the Dalziel brothers (George Dalziel (1815-1902) and his brother Edward Dalziel (1817-1905)), 1885)
Asiatic Cheetah (Drawing by H. Weir. Routledge’s Picture Natural History by the Rev. J. G. Wood, engraved by the Dalziel brothers (George Dalziel (1815-1902) and his brother Edward Dalziel (1817-1905)), 1885)

The Asiatic Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) (“cheetah” from Hindi ‘cheeta’, derived from Sanskrit word chitraka meaning “speckled”) is now-a-days also known as the Iranian Cheetah, as the world’s last few individuals are known to surviving mostly in Iran. Some occasional sightings are also reported from Balochistan (Pakistan). Although extinct in India, it is also known as the Indian Cheetah. During British rule in India it was known as the Hunting-Leopard, a name derived from the ones that were kept in captivity in large numbers by the Indian royalty to hunt wild antelopes. The head and body length of an adult Asiatic Cheetah measure between 112 – 135 cm. Length of its tail may vary between 66 and 84 cm. The animal weighs from 34 kg to 54 kg. Males are slightly larger than females.

The Asiatic Cheetah is a rare ‘critically endangered’ subspecies. Once it was numerous and common in its entire former range in Southwest Asia from Arabia to India including Afghanistan. In the early 20th century its population started declining and soon it was driven to extinction in many places. Latest studies show that only 70 to 100 of them are surviving and most of them are in Iran. Besides, the Asiatic Cheetah, Persian Leopard and the Eurasian Lynx are the only remaining species of large cats in Iran today. Once common, Caspian Tiger has already been driven to extinction in the last century. However, the latest genetic study has proved the Caspian tiger to be genetically identical to the contemporary Siberian tiger, suggesting that habitat fragmentation had separated the two within the last century.

Habitat

The fastest land animal in the world, Cheetah prefers grasslands, savannahs, semi-desert areas and other open habitats where prey is available. At present this subspecies is found in the Kavir desert region of Iran, which includes about six provinces including Tehran. It also seems to exist in the Balochistan province of Pakistan where availability of prey is adequate. With the development going on all around, the animal’s habitat is under threat from residential settlements coming up, increasing agriculture, declining prey and desertification. Unlike males, females do not establish their territory, which means they “travel” within their habitats.

Prey species

In Iran Asiatic Cheetah preys mainly on Jebeer Gazelle (also called Chinkara), Wild Goat, wild sheep, Goitered Gazelle and Cape Hare. The subspecies’ range is restricted to the Central Iranian plateau. The main threat to the species is because of loss of the prey species due to poaching and grazing competition with domestic livestock. Habitat loss due to mining and poaching of cheetah itself threaten their populations in Iran. In India when cheetah was there till the first half of the 20th century, prey was abundant, and it fed on Chinkaras, Blackbucks and sometimes the Chital (also known as spotted deer or axis deer) and the Nilgai, an antelope.

Evolution

Molecular sequence comparisons indicate that a break in the gene flow between the African and the Asiatic cheetah took place in the period from 32,000 to 67,000 years ago. What we see in Iran today are the last remaining representatives of the Asian lineage.

Emperor Akbar Hunting with Cheetahs
Emperor Akbar Hunting with Cheetahs

This species once ranged from Arabia to India, through Iran, central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. It was particularly numerous in Iran and the Indian subcontinent. These are the only large cats that can be tamed and trained to hunt gazelle. The Mughal Emperor of India, popularly known as ‘Akbar the Great’ (full name – Jalal-ud-Din Muhammad Akbar), was said to have acquired a whopping 9,000 cheetahs for his menagerie during his 49-year reign. The Emperor with the spotted cat has been depicted in many Indian miniatures and Persian paintings.

By the advent of 20th century, species was already heading for extinction in many regions. The last physical evidence of the Asiatic Cheetah in India was three shot by the Maharajah of Surguja in 1947 in today’s Chattisgarh (formerly state of Madhya Pradesh). In next forty years situation became so bad that by 1990, the subspecies became restricted mostly to Iran. Here also situation is not a very happy one. According to an estimate there were more than 200 cheetahs during the 1970s. More recently Iranian biologist Hormoz Asadi estimated that the number has come down to 50 – 100 and figures for 2005-2006 are between 50 and 60 in the wild. Most of these cheetahs live in Iran in the Kavir desert. A very few animals inhabit the dry terrain covering the border of Iran and Pakistan. Present situation is that even in the areas, which is known as today’s ‘cheetah country’, local people say they have not seen the animal for the last fifteen-twenty years.

Genetic subspecies level differentiation

Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) has for a long been classified as a subspecies of the cheetah with the suffix venaticus applied at the end of its scientific binomial name Acinonyx jubatus, but in the last few years there have been disputes among the experts on the claims whether it is a distinct subspecies or genetically identical to the African subspecies.

Last three Asiatic cheetahs killed in Surguja district of MP in Central India. The Maharajah Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo who reportedly shot them standing (Reported in the Journal of BNHS)
Last three Asiatic cheetahs killed in Surguja district of MP in Central India. The Maharajah Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo who reportedly shot them standing (Reported in the Journal of BNHS)

Stephen J. O’Brien from the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity of the National Cancer Institute, USA, who attended a Cheetah reintroduction workshop organized in India on 9 September 2009, said that, according to the newest modern genetic studies, which became possible only now, it was discovered that, in fact, the Asiatic cheetah was genetically identical to the African subspecies from which it separated only about 5,000 years ago, which was not enough time for a subspecies level differentiation.

O’Brien, who has in the past conducted numerous prestigious genetic studies including those on Asiatic lions, claimed that the case of Asian and African lion subspecies is different from cheetahs as they had separated some 100,000 years ago, and the African and Asian leopard subspecies 169,000 years ago. In the light of the above claim cheetah expert Laurie Marker of the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) and other experts present in the workshop advised the Indian Government that it should source cheetahs from Africa where they were much more numerous rather than Iran where the population is already in a critical stage, for the purpose of reintroduction into the country.

A much more exhaustive five-year genetic study by a group of Austrian scientists working in collaboration with the Iranian Department of Environment, involving DNA samples from the wild, museums and zoos of eight countries was published in Molecular Ecology (Journal) in 2011. It pronounced O’Brien wrong and concluded that, in fact, both the subspecies of cheetahs – African and Asiatic – were genetically very distinct and had, separated 32,000 to 67,000 years ago and the subspecies level differentiation had taken place due to longer separation from the African population. In light of this genetic evidence, India’s Supreme Court suspended attempts to introduce African cheetahs as part of a cheetah reintroduction program.

Cheetah victim of Revolution

Subsequent to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, conservation of wildlife was placed lower on the priority list of the country. Predator the Asiatic Cheetah and its primary prey species, gazelles, both were hunted indiscriminately, resulting in a sharp decline. Due to this major reason Asiatic Cheetah is now placed as critically endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. Some surveys conducted by Asadi in 1997 elucidate that urgent action is needed to rehabilitate wildlife, especially gazelles and their habitat if the Asiatic Cheetah is to survive, which is confined to the desert areas around Dasht-e-Kavir in the eastern half of Iran. Most of these cats live in five sanctuaries, namely Kavir National Park, Naybandan Wildlife Reserve, Bafq Protected Area, Touran National Park and the Daranjir Wildlife Reserve.

Threats

Young Abdul Rahim Khan-e-Khana being received by Mughal Emperor Akbar. Painting from Akbarnama (cheetahs can be seen in the painting)
Young Abdul Rahim Khan-e-Khana being received by Mughal Emperor Akbar. Painting from Akbarnama (cheetahs can be seen in the painting)
  1. Human Pressure and Land-use change has been a key factor in the animal’s ecosystem. Habitat fragmentation and degradation, Persecution, increasing desertification, killing of cheetah’s prey species, poaching are the main factors responsible for the persistent decline of cheetahs in Iran. The Iranian Department of Environment says degradation took place especially between 1988 and 1991.

Now Iran has very limited population of cheetahs and that too exists in very low numbers, divided into widely separated populations. Its low density makes it more likely to be affected by lack of prey, livestock overgrazing and antelope hunting, coupled with direct persecution of cheetahs by humans. Even in protected areas cheetah’s habitat management needs to be improved.

2. Coal, Opium, and the Cheetah: iron, coal and copper are the three important things that are being mined in cheetah’s habitat in three regions in central and eastern Iran. According to an estimate two regions for coal (Nayband) and iron (Bafq) have the largest cheetah population outside the protected areas. For the existence of cheetahs mining itself is not a direct threat, instead road construction and the resultant traffic has made the animal easily accessible to humans, including poachers. Regions of Iran bordering Pakistan (Baluchistan province) and Afghanistan have been, and still are, major passages for armed outlaws and opium smugglers who indulge in uncontrolled hunting throughout the desert and the governments of the three nations are unable to stop them.

Problems of Conservation

Several problems related to Cheetah’s conservation contribute to its general vulnerability and its very complex conservation requirements, e.g., high mortality rate of cubs due to genetic factors, low fertility rate and the fact that females are the ones who select mates, are the mains reason why captive breeding has had such a poor record. Another problem with the animal’s conservation is its limited gene pool. All living cheetahs have very limited genetic diversity due to a near-extinction event some 12,000 years ago. Experts believe that this cat will not be a “robust, vigorous species anytime in the foreseeable future.”

Efforts for Conservation

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and Iran’s Department of Environment, have started the Conservation of the Asiatic Cheetah Project (CACP), which is designed to preserve and rehabilitate the remaining areas of Cheetah habitat left in Iran.

Herders have been identified as a significant target group that usually confuse Cheetah with other similar-sized carnivores, like leopards, wolves, wild cats, striped hyenas and even caracal. To educate them a specific Herders Training Course was developed in 2007 to teach them how to identify cheetahs as well as other carnivores, since they were the main causes for livestock kills. These courses were a result of cooperation between UNDP/GEF, Iran’s Department of Environment, ICS, and the councils of five main villages in this region.

Another incentive in the region is the formation of young core groups of Cheetah Friends. After a short instructive course they are able to educate people and organize Cheetah events and become an informational instance in Cheetah matters for a number of villages. It is claimed that encouraging results have come up as the young people have been showing a great amount of interest not only for cheetahs, but for wildlife conservation in general.

Iran-Russia Re-population project

Ecologists of both Russia and Iran are planning a joint venture to reintroduce the wild Caspian Tiger as well as Asiatic Cheetah in the Central Asian region. These cats had become extinct — Caspian Tiger from Iran and Asiatic Cheetah from Russia — some half a century ago. Earlier it was thought that Russian or Amur tigers were different from the Caspian tigers, but the latest genetic studies have shown that both are not only related, they are virtually identical. Now the Russians want to offer Amur tigers to Iran to repopulate the Caspian Tiger range in northern Iran in exchange for critically endangered Asiatic Cheetahs that Russia wants to acquire from Iran, their last abode, to repopulate the northern Caucasus region of central Asia.

It is noteworthy that there are many more Russian or Amur Tigers in the wild than the tiny numbers of surviving Asiatic Cheetah and whilst there is a healthy population of Russian Tigers in the captive breeding program in zoos there is no captive breeding population of Asiatic Cheetah in any zoo. While discussing the prospects of reintroducing Cheetah in India the Cheetah specialists of various countries have already warned that no individuals from the critically low Asiatic Cheetah population in Iran should be withdrawn at this stage for any reintroduction experiment elsewhere, like the one proposed by Russia in exchange for the relatively much more abundant Russian Tiger, as the limited gene pool of Asiatic Cheetahs in Iran will suffer a massive blow.

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