Only 60 cheetahs are believed to remain in Iran, their numbers bludgeoned by hunting, road-building, and drought, say environmentalists who are battling to save them from extinction.
TEHRAN, Iran Only 60 cheetahs are believed to remain in Iran, their numbers bludgeoned by hunting, road-building, and drought, say environmentalists who are battling to save them from extinction.
The sleek, swift, black-spotted big cats live mainly in the central deserts, hunting down gazelle and wild goats with bursts of up to 68 miles per hour.
Akbar Hamedanian, managing director of the U.N.-backed Conservation of the Asiatic Cheetah Project, says numbers began to fall in the 17th century through royal hunting menageries.
"Courts in the time of Shah Abbas would not only have falconers but also a cheetah-keeper," he explained.
He added that the first hunting rifles arrived at about the same time, stoking up the Persian passion for big game hunting that wiped out the Iranian lion and tiger.
The cheetah's historic range included most of Africa, the Middle East, and much of western Asia, including India.
It now roams a fraction of its former African territory, where the cheetah population is between 12,000 and 15,000.
The Asiatic cheetah is now unique to Iran.
Hunting these endangered sprinters is illegal in Iran, but scientists are unsure whether the practice persists. Anecdotal evidence exists from three years ago, but officials insist hunting has been stamped out.
Hunters mainly threaten the cheetah by killing its prey, and the project lobbies for stricter gun licence control.
The group successfully persuaded one desert province to stop issuing shooting licences. But Hamedanian said any further restrictions hinged on whether the government was willing to take action.
He added nomadic livestock herders roaring round the desert on motorbikes also posed a huge risk.
"Most herders have motorbikes, and sometimes they chase down the gazelle," he said. "But the main problem is the roads, giving access to hunters."
Behzad Rahgoshai, the project's deputy manager, said a few cheetahs had been run over on the roads. Another had toppled into an open mineshaft.
Base for Recovery
Martin Tyson, a British scientist working as the project's chief technical adviser, said counting work with camouflaged cameras and other systems was not yet finished but had already given a rough outline of the population.
"Sixty is probably a reasonable figure," he said.
When asked whether biologically that was enough of a base for numbers to recover, he replied, "Absolutely."
But there are also natural challenges to any revival, such as central Iran's seasonal droughts.
"Cheetahs are by nature very picky," said Rahgoshai. "They are not leopards or or other big cats. The females must like the male."
Once persuaded she does like the male, a healthy cheetah litter should comprise four cubs, the environmentalists said. In the wild, one or two should reach maturity.
President Mohammad Khatami has thrown his weight behind attempts to save the cheetah, exhorting Iranians to look upon it as a source of national pride.
Project members are collating data which they hope will ultimately feed into a national action plan and believe their education projects will make some headway.
Slow progress hit a dispiriting setback last year, when a farmer found some cubs and burned them alive, saying he thought they were wolf cubs. He was imprisoned.