June 19, 2008

Nations Collaborate To Save Endangered Cheetahs

Despite tensions between their governments, wildlife experts from Iran and the West are collaborating to save endangered Asiatic cheetahs from extinction in the rugged, mountainous region of central Iran.

The country is thought to host the only 60 - 100 Asiatic cheetahs that remain in the wild. The animals inhabit the unforgiving terrain of jagged peaks, gorges and arid plains in the Kuh-e Bafgh protected area in central Iran's Yazd province.

Conservation groups from Britain and the U.S. are supporting the initiative, which is being led by Iran's Department of Environment (DoE) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

The cheetahs once roamed between India and the Arabian Peninsula, but over the last 30 years their numbers have decreased by half in Iran. The nation was home to four of the so-called big cats, including lions and tigers, until the early 20th century, but only cheetahs and leopards now remain.

"This is a wonderful case of the urgent conservation needs of the cheetah transcending political differences," Luke Hunter, executive director for New York-based non-governmental organization (NGO) Panthera, said in an e-mail correspondence with Reuters.

The United States terminated diplomatic ties with Iran after its 1979 Islamic revolution, and is now spearheading efforts to isolate the nation over their nuclear plans that Washington suspects is aimed at making weapons. The Iranian government in Tehran denies the claim.  

However, Hunter, from Australia, believes that "both Iranians and Americans realize that we cannot afford to allow politics to affect the cheetahs. If we did, we could lose them."

Iranian officials made similar remarks.

"I love anybody who works for conservation and wildlife protection. It doesn't matter who it is," said 59-year-old Ali Akhbar Karimi, a veteran from Iran's Department of Environment in Yazd province, according to a Reuters report.

The Asiatic cheetah is closely related to its better-known African counterpart, a predator that can achieve speeds of over 60 miles an hour when chasing after its prey.   However, by adapting to its harsh surroundings, Iran's cheetahs have developed different behavior from those in Africa.

Cheetahs have been driven to the brink of extinction in Iran as villagers hunt their prey for food and herds of goat and sheep encroach on their habitat. A lack of resources to protect the cheetahs has also been a problem.

"We need to do something urgent to save them," Houman Jowkar, an Iranian biologist and field director for U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Yazd, told Reuters.

"It is a national treasure."

Iran's Kuh-e Bafgh Protected Area spans 342 sq miles (885 sq km) across a remote part of Yazd, and is one of five such areas where the cheetah remains despite the poaching of its prey. Temperatures there reach a sweltering 122-Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius) during the summer, and plummet to below freezing in winter.

Karimi said he had spotted several cheetahs this year, including females with cubs, a hopeful sign.

Iran's Department of Environment and the UNDP partnered to initiate the cheetah project in 2001, enlisting the participation of George Schaller, a well-known U.S. wildlife biologist. Schaller's emergency recommendations included stepping up anti-poaching efforts and appointing new game guards.  

The WCS and Panthera provide funds, training and expertise for the program, while London's Zoological Society also contributes money.

In early 2007, the WCS launched an initiative to trap up to eight cheetahs and fit them with radio-tracking collars to monitor their movements.  So far, only two cheetahs have been caught and fitted with the collars, one of which was later killed by a leopard in a fight over food. But Jowkar hopes the November capture season will be more productive.

"You must know where it lives exactly," Jowkar said.

There were signs the Iranian cheetahs were active at night, and they also had thicker fur during winter, Jowkar said.  

"We know the area better, we know the habitat better, and probably we can catch more cheetahs," he said.

Mehdi Kamyab, a senior UNDP official in Tehran, told Reuters the campaign to protect the cheetahs was a "flagship conservation project" that utilized new techniques.  The UNDP provided the initial $750,000 budget, which has been virtually depleted. But additional funding will be injected, Kamyab said, with both the DoE and WCS contributing to the program.

"This is just a start, obviously. We need to build on this," he said.

"It is still an endangered species."

Hunter called the program "reasonably successful", as the number of cheetahs appears to have stabilized. He commended the DoE for heightening local awareness and increasing punishment for those who slaughter the animals.

"However, there is still a very serious problem with the hunting of the cheetah prey in some areas," he said.

Peter Zahler, WCS Assistant Director, told Reuters his organization had the necessary permits to work in Iran and had not come across any major logistical or political obstacles.

"Our donors, partners and both governments recognize that endangered wildlife cannot always wait for political solutions and that wildlife conservation is itself not a political activity," he wrote in an e-mail.

"In fact, engaging in such activities has a long history all over the world of bringing peoples, who are otherwise at odds on certain issues, to the table over a subject with which they are all in agreement.