Monday, 16 July 2012

Asiatic Cheetah

The Asiatic Cheetah ("cheetah" from Hindi चीता cītā, derived from Sanskrit word chitraka meaning "speckled") (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) is now also known as the Iranian Cheetah, as the world's last few are known to survive mostly in Iran. Although recently presumed to be extinct in India, it is also known as the Indian Cheetah. During British colonial times in India it was famous by the name of Hunting-Leopard, a name derived from the ones that were kept in captivity in large numbers by the Indian royalty to hunt wild antelopes with. (In some languages all cheetah species are still called exactly that; i.e. Dutch: jachtluipaard.)
The Asiatic Cheetah is a rare critically endangered subspecies of the Cheetah found today only in Iran, with some occasional sightings in Balochistan, Pakistan. It lives in its vast central desert in fragmented pieces of remaining suitable habitat. In recent times in the last century this once numerous and common animal was driven to extinction elsewhere in its entire former range in Southwest Asia from Arabia to India including Afghanistan; latest research shows that only 70 to 100 Asiatic Cheetahs are estimated to remain, most of them in Iran. This is the result of continuous field surveys, all of which have been verified by the results of more than 12,000 nights of camera trapping inside its fragmented Iranian desert habitats during the past 10 years. The Asiatic Cheetah, the Eurasian Lynx and the Persian Leopard are the only remaining species of large cats in Iran today with the once common Caspian Tiger having already been driven to extinction in the last century; though recent genetic study has proven the Caspian to be genetically identical to the contemporary Siberian tiger, hinting that habitat fragmentation had separated the two subspecies within the last century.

Anatomy and morphology

 

Cheetah cubs with dog (India, 1897).

The Cheetah is the fastest land animal in the world. The head and body of the adult Asiatic Cheetah measure from 112 to 135 cm with a tail length between 66 and 84 cm. It can weigh from 34 to 54 kg, but the male is slightly larger than the female.

Ecology and life history

 

Habitat

 

Cheetahs thrive in open lands, small plains, semi-desert areas, and other open habitats where prey is available. The Asiatic Cheetah is found in the Kavir desert region of Iran, which includes parts of the Kerman, Khorasan, Semnan, Yazd, Tehran, and Markazi provinces. The Asiatic Cheetah also seems to survive in the dry open Balochistan province of Pakistan where adequate prey is available. The cheetah's habitat is under threat from desertification, increasing agriculture, residential settlements, and declining prey — caused by hunting and degradation in pastures by overgrazing from introduced livestock. Females, unlike males, do not establish a territory, which means they “travel” within their habitats. This is an important attribute to consider in conservation.

Feeding ecology

 

Hunting of Blackbuck with Asiatic Cheetah; Drawn by James Forbes in South Gujarat, India. Oriental Memoirs, 1812.
 
Nawabs with their Asiatic Cheetahs

The Asiatic Cheetah preys on small antelopes.
In Iran, the diet of the Asiatic Cheetah consists mainly of Jebeer Gazelle (also called Chinkara), Goitered Gazelle, wild sheep, Wild Goat, and Cape Hare. The Asiatic Cheetah’s range is restricted to the Central Iranian plateau. The main threat to the species is loss of their primary prey species, Jebeer gazelle, goitered gazelle, urial sheep, and wild goat, due to poaching and grazing competition with domestic livestock. Habitat loss from mining development and poaching of Asiatic Cheetahs also threaten their populations in Iran. "Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)" and the "Department of Environment, Iran (DoE)" have started a collaring project for Asiatic Cheetahs in the fall of 2006.
In India fifty years ago, prey was abundant, and it fed on the Blackbuck, the Chinkara, and sometimes the Chital and the Nilgai.
...is in low, isolated, rocky hills, near the plains on which live antelopes, its principal prey. It also kills gazelles, nilgai, and, doubtless, occasionally deer and other animals. Instances also occur of sheep and goats being carried off by it, but it rarely molests domestic animals, and has not been known to attack men. Its mode of capturing its prey is to stalk up to within a moderate distance of between one to two hundred yards, taking advantage of inequalities of the ground, bushes, or other cover, and then to make a rush. It's speed for a short distance is remarkable far exceeding that of any other beast of prey, even of a greyhound or kangaroo-hound, for no dog can at first overtake an Indian antelope or a gazelle, either of which is quickly run down by C. jubatus, if the start does not exceed about two hundred yards. General McMaster saw a very fine hunting-leopard catch a black buck that had about that start within four hundred yards. It is probable that for a short distance the hunting-leopard is the swiftest of all mammals.
—Blanford writing on the Asiatic Cheetah in India quoted by Lydekker

Evolutionary history

 

Akbar, Mughal emperor of India hunting with locally trapped Asiatic Cheetahs, c. 1602. He was said to have had 1,000 cheetahs at one time for assisting in his royal hunts. Trapping of large numbers of adult Indian cheetahs, who had already learned hunting skills from wild mothers, for assisting in royal hunts is said to be another major cause of the species' rapid decline in India as there is only one record of a litter ever born to captive animals.

Molecular sequence comparisons suggest that a break in the geneflow between the African and Asiatic populations cheetahs occurred between 32,000 to 67,000 years ago. The populations in Iran are the last remaining representatives of the Asian lineage.
The Asiatic Cheetah once ranged from Arabia to India, through Iran, central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. In Iran and the Indian subcontinent, it was particularly numerous. Cheetahs are the only big cat that can be tamed and trained to hunt gazelle. The Mughal Emperor of India, Akbar, was said to have had 1,000 cheetahs at one time, something depicted in many Persian and Indian miniature paintings. The numerous constraints regarding the Cheetah’s conservation contribute to its general susceptibility and its very complex conservation requirements, e.g., its low fertility rate, the high mortality rate of the cubs due to genetic factors, and the fact that females are the ones who select mates, have been reasons why captive breeding has had such a poor record. A Cheetah-specific issue is its limited gene pool. All living Cheetahs have very limited genetic diversity due to a near-extinction event some 12,000 years ago. The Cheetah will not be a “robust, vigorous species anytime in the foreseeable future"
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the species was already heading for extinction in many areas. The last physical evidence of the Asiatic Cheetah in India was three shot by the Maharajah of Surguja in 1947 in eastern Madhya Pradesh. By 1990, the Asiatic Cheetah appeared to survive only in Iran. Estimated to number more than 200 during the 1970s, more recently Iranian biologist Hormoz Asadi estimated that the number of Asiatic Cheetahs left to be between 50 and 100 and figures for 2005-2006 are between 50 and 60 in the wild. Most of these 60 Asiatic Cheetahs live in Iran on the Kavir desert. A remnant population inhabits the dry terrain covering the border of Iran and Pakistan. In the areas in which the cheetah lives, locals say they have not seen it for more than fifteen years.

The last three Asiatic Cheetahs recorded from India were shot down by Maharajah Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo in Surguja, Madhya Pradesh, Central India seen in this photo submitted by his private secretary to JBNHS
 

Genetic sub-species level differentiation

 

Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) have for a long time been classified as a sub-species of the cheetah. At a cheetah reintroduction workshop, organized in India on 9 September 2009, Stephen J. O'Brien from the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity of the National Cancer Institute, USA, who has in the past conducted numerous prestigious genetic studies including those on Asiatic lions, said that, according to the latest modern genetic studies, the Asiatic cheetah was in fact genetically identical to the African Cheetah. The two were separated only about 5,000 years ago, which was not enough time for a sub-species level differentiation. In comparison, he said that the Asian and African lion subspecies were separated some 100,000 years ago, and the African and Asian leopard subspecies 169,000 years ago. Cheetah expert Laurie Marker of the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) and other wildlife experts assembled for the occasion advised the Indian Government that for reintroduction purposes India should source the Cheetah from Africa where they were much more numerous instead of trying to have some removed from the critically endangered low population of the world's last 70 to 100 or so Asiatic Cheetahs left in Iran. India's Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh; chief wildlife wardens of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh; officials of the environment ministry; Cheetah experts from across the globe including Laurie Marker from Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF); representatives from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) including Yadvendradev Jhala; and IUCN, an international conservation NGO, among others, participated. The conference was organized by the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI)
However, subsequently in 2011, a much more detailed five-year genetic study involving the gathering of DNA samples from the wild, zoos and museums in eight countries published in Molecular Ecology (Journal) on 8 January 2011, concluded that, in fact, African and Asiatic cheetahs were genetically very distinct and had, in fact, separated 32,000 to 67,000 years ago and subspecies level differentiation had, in fact, 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. 

Conservation

 

Following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, wildlife conservation was given a lower priority. The Asiatic Cheetah and its principal prey, gazelles, were hunted, resulting in a rapid decline. As a result, the Asiatic Cheetah is now listed as critically endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. Some surveys by Asadi in the latter half of 1997 show that urgent action is required to rehabilitate wildlife populations, especially gazelles and their habitat if the Asiatic Cheetah is to survive. There are currently only 50-60 Asiatic Cheetahs left in the wild. They are confined to the desert areas around Dasht-e-Kavir in the eastern half of Iran. Most live in five sanctuaries: Kavir National Park, Touran National Park, Bafq Protected Area, Daranjir Wildlife Reserve and Naybandan Wildlife Reserve

Threats

 

Bedouin hunter with a shot Asiatic Cheetah and cub, Iraq, 1925. Widespread hunting of this animal and its prey species along with conversion of its grassland habitat to farmland has wiped it out completely from its entire range in southwest Asia and India. Critically endangered with extinction, there are fewer than a hundred Asiatic cheetahs in the world; they can only be found in the central desert of Iran.

Land-use change has been a major factor in the Cheetah’s ecosystem. Persecution, habitat degradation and fragmentation, desertification, and direct killing of wildlife that the Cheetah preys upon, particularly game animals and off-take for commercial uses through poaching are all factors responsible for the chronic decline of the Cheetah in Iran. According to the Iranian Department of Environment this degradation has occurred especially between 1988 and 1991.
The Asiatic Cheetah exists in very low numbers, divided into widely separated populations. Its low density makes it more likely to be affected by a lack of prey through livestock overgrazing and antelope hunting, coupled with direct persecution from humans. While protected areas comprise a key component of the cheetah's habitat, management needs to be improved.
Widespread hunting of this animal and its prey species along with conversion of its grassland habitat to farmland has wiped it out completely from its entire range in southwest Asia and India. Critically endangered with extinction, there are less than a hundred Asiatic Cheetahs in the world; they can only be found in the central desert of Iran.

Coal, Opium, and the Cheetah: Coal, copper, and iron are the three important goods that have been mined in the Cheetah’s habitat in three different regions in central and eastern Iran. It is estimated that the two regions for coal (Nayband) and iron (Bafq) have the largest Cheetah population outside the protected areas. Mining itself is not a direct threat to Cheetahs; road construction and the resulting traffic have made the Cheetah accessible to humans, including poachers. The Iranian border regions to Afghanistan and Pakistan (Baluchistan province) have been, and still are, major passages for armed outlaws and opium smugglers who distribute their “goods” in the central and western regions of Iran; they must pass through the Cheetah habitat. The region suffers from uncontrolled hunting throughout the desert and the governments of the three countries cannot establish a fundamental change. According to Asadi this was the situation in 1997. There is no reliable information regarding the present situation in this region.

Conservation efforts

 

Asiatic Cheetah cubs in India, 1897.

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

Training Course for Herders: It is estimated that 10 Cheetahs live in the Bafq Protected Area. According to the Iranian Cheetah Society (ICS), herders are considered as a significant target group which generally confuses the Cheetah with other similar-sized carnivores, including wolf, leopard, striped hyena, and even caracal and wild cat. On the basis of the results of conflict assessment, a specific Herders Training Course was developed in 2007, in which they learned how to identify the cheetah as well as other carnivores, since these 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.

Cheetah Friends: Another incentive in the region is the formation of young core groups of Cheetah friends, who after a short instructive course, are able to educate people and organize Cheetah events and become an informational instance in Cheetah matters for a number of villages. It is encouraging that young people have been showing a great amount of interest for this issue; not only for the Cheetah, but for wildlife conservation in general.

Ex-situ conservation: India, where the Asiatic Cheetah is now extinct, is interested in cloning the cheetah to reintroduce it to the country, and it was claimed that Iran - the donor country - was willing to participate in the project. Later on, however, Iran refused to send a male and female cheetah or to allow experts to collect tissue samples from a cheetah kept in a zoo there. Currently, the Indian government is actively considering reintroducing Cheetahs through importing from Africa through captive breeding.

 

Semi-Captive - Breeding and Research Center of Iranian cheetah, Semnan province


In February 2010 Mehr News Agency, Payvand Iran News released the photos of an Asiatic/Iranian Cheetah in a seemingly large compound within natural habitat enclosed by chain link fence, this location was reported in this news article to be the "Semi-Captive - Breeding and Research Center of Iranian Cheetah" in Iran's Semnan province. The Asiatic Cheetah pictured had a winter coat with long and furry hair.
Another related news report stated that the centre boasts about 10 individual critically endangered Asiatic Cheetahs in this semi-wild environment protected by wire fencing all around.
In January 2010, Iran and Russia had jointly announced plans to revive both the Asiatic Cheetah and the Amur Tiger species (which has been shown to be genetically similar to the extinct Caspian Tiger of the area) in and around the Caspian region through a joint project in the near future.

Re-wilding project in India


Cheetahs have been known to exist in India for a very long time. But due to hunting and other purposes, Cheetahs in India became extinct in the twentieth century. Hence, the Indian government is planning a re-wilding project for Cheetahs. The article in TOI, Page 11, Thursday, 9 July 2009, clearly suggests the importation of Cheetahs into India where they will be bred in captivity. Cheetahs have been extinct in India since the 1940s, and hence the government is planning this project. Minister of Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, told the Rajya Sabha on 7 July 2009 that, "The cheetah is the only animal that has been described extinct in India in the last 100 years. We have to get them from abroad to repopulate the species." He was responding to a calling attention notice from Rajiv Pratap Rudy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). "The plan to bring back the Cheetah which fell to indiscriminate hunting and complex factors like a fragile breeding pattern is audacious given the problems besetting tiger conservation." Two naturalists, Divya Bhanusinh and MK Ranjit Singh, suggested the idea of importing cheetahs from Africa. After their importation they will be bred in captivity and, after a definite period of time, released in the wild.

Russia–Iran Re-population project

 

Iranian and Russian ecologists are planning a joint project intended to return to the wild Caspian Tigers as well as Asiatic Cheetahs in the Central Asian region. These big cats had disappeared, the Asiatic Cheetah from Russia and the Caspian Tiger from Iran, some half a century ago. Latest genetic studies have shown that the Russian or Amur Tiger is related and virtually identical to the extinct Caspian Tigers and hence the Russians want to offer it 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 may be noted here that there are many more Russian or Amur Tigers in the wild than the tiny numbers of surviving Asiatic Cheetah and while there is a healthy population of Russian Tigers in the captive breeding program in the zoos there is no captive breeding population of the Asiatic Cheetah in any zoo. While discussing the prospects of reintroducing the Cheetah in India the Cheetah experts from the world over 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 tremendous blow.