Asiatic Cheetahs collared

12 03 2007

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.

Asiatic Cheetah
[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.

For more information on this magnificent cat, visit the WCS Iran Cheetah Project page, the Conservation of the Asiatic Cheetah Project, and a report about the cheetahs from 1998.



3 responses

13 03 2007

Thanks for this post–I’m bookmarking it to show my seven-year-old cheetahphile son.

Would there be any value to transporting a few members of one population to another area to encourage greater genetic diversity, or would that be opening a can of worms better left sealed?

14 03 2007

You’re quite welcome Molly; I hope your son finds this post interesting as well.

As for spurring genetic diversity in cheetahs, I know captive-bred specimens are kept track of via a studbook, cheetahs often being transported hither and yon to promote genetic diversity. The problem is that cheetahs are exceedingly neurotic and are difficult to reintroduce into the wild, so even if more genetically diverse individuals could be bred, getting them to successfully integrate into the wild may not work.

To the best of my understanding, East African cheetahs aren’t as inbred as others in Africa, but I haven’t seen any reports/results an Iranian cheetahs (they’re hard enough to find, much less capture). Indeed, most of the genetic tests done on cheetahs stem from cheetahs in some form of captivity or another (be it a zoo, wildlife park, private establishment, or conservation organization), often using blood, hair, and sperm samples to do the work. I have a bit more hope for the Asiatic species because they were very widespread until recently, but recent population crashes due to hunting and encroachment could negate this if their numbers are not shored up in the near-future.

The short answer is, it’s too early to tell, although I don’t see any reason why African and Asiatic cheetahs would not interbreed and produce fertile offspring. Even so, the number of Asiatic cheetahs would have to increase with conservation efforts before any such plan was attempted, and as I stated before cheetahs don’t make things easy when it comes to breeding programs/reintroduction. I for one hope they’ll be around for a long time to come, but without careful management and help from humans, cheetahs could very well go extinct in the near future.

17 03 2007

Thanks for your answer, Brian, and for the link to the NPR story–going to go check that out now.

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