Update: NPR had an interview with the WCS’ Luke Hunter about the big cats today. You can read the transcript or listen in at their website.
While the cheetah may be one of the primary animals people think of as representative of Africa, populations still cling to life in Iran. In fact, Cheetahs were once more widespread through the Middle East, India, and parts of Asia, but hunting of both the cheetahs and their food supply led to dramatic population collapses. Indeed, there are only an estimated 60 Asiatic Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) left in the wild, primarily located in the Kavir Desert region of Iran.
[Image used with permission of the WCS]
The above is from this MSNBC report (and original credit going to the WCS) appears to be of a mother and three juveniles, likely taken with a camera trap in Iran. Recently, however, WCS workers have had even more luck in that they’ve collared two male cheetahs, the GPS collars potentially giving the conservationists a better idea of where these animals are going. While I hope that a new and less stressful method of tracking animals will be developed in coming years, being able to recognize the home ranges of these animals is essential if conservation plans are to be implemented. Being able to declare certain areas of cheetah habitat will also do good for other less charismatic or visible animals in the area, their conservation going along with that of the big cats.
One thing that intrigues me that is missing from most articles I’ve seen about the Asiatic subspecies is their genetic diversity, likely because it has yet to be studied. African cheetahs are highly inbred, owing to a population reduction about 12,000 years ago and subsequent hunting by humans, the East African subspecies being more genetically diverse than in other areas. The discovery of this startling fact is recounted in the book The Tears of the Cheetah, describing how because of inbreeding cheetahs are highly susceptible to disease and even have some asymmetries in their skulls (one of the tell-tale signs of inbreeding). I wonder if the Asiatic subspecies, until recently having a much wider range, are as inbred as their African relatives. If not, then we have even more reason to conserve them, Asiatic cheetahs perhaps providing a key to conservation of the entire species.