One Hundred Asiatic Cheetahs
Iran is a country of deserts and mountains, sand-cats and sea-wolves, and cheetahs that live in the snow. It is also a conservation pioneer, with active environmentalist groups inspiring the war torn nations that surround them. One organisation has been monitoring the population of resident cheetah for over a decade, providing the longest data set known to the area in its history.The asiatic cheetah once lived amongst asian lions and caspian tigers, in a community resembling something not far off the African savannah. Through years of habitat degradation, poaching, and other anthropogenic influence, the ecosystem lost much of its vigour soon after the Iranian revolution.
In population ecology, Minimum Viable Population refers to the least number of individuals that may sustain a healthy population of an animal in the wild. Depending on the animal, populations may become subject to genetic bottlenecks, leading to inbreeding depression; indeed this has been seen in captive populations of cheetah Acinonyx jubatus.
The iranian population of cheetah, studied over a decade by Dr Luke Hunter and team, revealed that an estimated 100 individuals remain in the wild. Through camera trapping, satellite tracking, and individual sightings, the study developed an accurate estimate of the diminished community. Though further work is needed to investigate the genetic library of this population, it has already been suggested that they may be integrated with African cheetahs to increase genetic viability for a longer term solution. Recent sightings have indicated that the population is reproductive – infertility may indicate a bottleneck – where a mother was seen to successfully rear 4 cubs.
Threats to the population remain. Cheetah prey, in the form of large horned ungulates, are targeted for trophy hunts. One man captured a cheetah, not knowing its worth, let alone what the animal actually was; only suspecting possible worth. As infrastructure develops and fragments habitats, cheetah populations are forced to disperse even further, increasing susceptibility to capture, and ending up as road kill.
However, cheetah conservation remains a community priority through awareness raised throughout the project. Capacity building has also meant that local teams may continue the research once international parties have dispersed. The future of the critically endangered asiatic cheetah seems bleak, although with dedicated long term monitoring and the potential for intercontinental breeding, it seems that some hope remains for this species.