07 Jan

The Iranian Cheetah Project: Q&A with Panthera President, Dr. Luke Hunter


This Q&A originally appeared in the 2013 Jan/Feb issue of Bare Essentials Magazine.

The Asiatic cheetach once had a distribution that extended across the Middle East, Central Asia, north into southern Kazakhstan and southeast into India.

Today, the cheetah has been extirpated from its entire Asiatic range, except for a small and critically endangered population in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Estimated at 200 animals in the 1970's, there are now thought to be only 70-110 Asiatic cheetahs left in the wild, all occupying the arid, central plateau of Iran. The major threats facing the Asiatic cheetah include overhunting of cheetah prey, habitat degradation and direct poaching. To reverse years of persecution and protect the last remaining population of Asiatic cheetahs in iran, Panthera is partnering with Iran's Department of the Environmental (DoE), the Wildlife Conservation Society and the United Nations Development Programme to carry out the Iranian Cheetah Project.

We interviewed Dr. Luke Hunter, President of Panthera to learn more about this rare subspecies and what is being done to save them.

Interview by Inga Yandell

What makes cheetahs the most vulnerable of the world’s big cats?

Firstly, it’s important to remember that vulnerable does not mean the same as ‘endangered.’ Cheetahs are not as endangered as tigers of which there are perhaps only 3000, compared to 7500-9000 cheetahs; cheetahs are less in danger of extinction than tigers. But cheetahs are vulnerable to a greater range of threats than most big cats.

In addition to the usual human-caused factors that threaten all big cats, such as habitat loss, over-hunting of prey and direct persecution, cheetahs are naturally are and they compete poorly with other large carnivores. This means that cheetahs are kept at very low numbers where there are healthy populations of lions, spotted hyaenas and leopards. It is this combination of human threats and natural factors that makes them unusually vulnerable.

Is it true cheetahs belong to a separate genus unto themselves?

Cheetahs are classified in their own genus Acinonyx (probably derived from Ancient Greek, meaning ‘thorn claw’, referring to the cheetah’s dog-like, semi-retractile claws). This reflects the fact that they diverged as a unique species many millions of years ago, and they are not closely related to other big cats.

How are Asiatic cheetahs different from their African counterparts?

There is no mistaking an Asiatic cheetah as a cheetah- they look very similar to African cheetahs- but there are distinct genetic differences that indicate they have been separated from African populations for many thousands of years.

The most interesting differences are ecological; Asiatic cheetahs live in extremely rugged, rocky desert habitat with vast salt flats, high mountains and severe temperature extremes; habitat that is nothing like African savannahs. They are the only cheetahs on earth that experience snow in winter, and they develop long, pale winter coats that you never see on a wild African cheetah.

Why is the wild population of this subspecies so low?

The last Asiatic cheetahs now live only in Iran, where there are probably fewer than 70 remaining- the only wild cheetahs in Asia. Humans wiped them out from the rest of Asia via a combination of hunting for sport (of both cheetahs and their prey) as well as capturing them in the thousands to train as hunting companions. This was very popular among the elites of the great hunting Asian cultures such as the Mughals.

The famous Mughal emperor Akbar the Great reportedly kept over 9000 ‘domestic’ cheetahs in his lifetime, all of them captured from the wild which must have massively depleted Asiatic cheetah populations. Modern hunting and persecution of cheetahs sealed their fate across Asia except for the most remote and unpopulated part of central Iran where they still exist today.

Due to their shy and elusive nature are they harder to research and protect?

Yes, Iranian cheetahs are intensely shy and avoid people at all costs, nothing like the tourist-friendly cheetahs of East and southern Africa. This makes direct observation extremely difficult but my Iranian colleagues have become extremely proficient in using other methods to study and understand cheetahs, especially camera-trapping. This has allowed us to identify the most important areas for cheetahs, and therefore which sites need the most urgent conservation attention.

What are the major threats Panthera’s Iranian Cheetah Projects are working to address?

In Iran, Panthera works closely with the Iranian Department of Environment who, in 2001, established the ‘Conservation of the Asiatic Cheetah Program (CACP) with an excellent team of local conservationists.

The CACP have been effective at elevating the protection of cheetahs, but the most important threats today relate to impacts on cheetah prey- illegal hunting of gazelles and other wild herbivores, and livestock grazing in protected areas. Taking steps to address this issue will give the cheetahs the best hope of survival- for example, by increasing the personnel and equipment devoted to protecting important cheetah habitats, and controlling livestock numbers and overgrazing in protected areas.

What are your favourite ‘fascinating facts’ about the cheetah?

I think the most fascinating facts are related to the cheetah’s extraordinary running ability. My favorite is probably the calculation that showed that a legless cheetah could reach a speed of 15 kmh merely by ‘caterpillaring’- bunching and uncoiling its incredibly flexible spine. That’s about three times as fast as the typical walking speed of a human.

What message would you give to inspire others to share your passion for saving this species?

Iran’s cheetahs are the last of their kind; if they vanish, the unique Asiatic cheetah will be gone forever. In the West, we rarely hear of good news from Iran but they should be congratulated and supported in saving this unique cat. This is our last chance to save them.

Learn more about Panthera's President, Dr. Luke Hunter.

Read a blog post by Dr. Luke Hunter on "Finding the Last Cheetahs of Iran," recently featured on National Geographic.

Learn more about the CACP and view Iranian cheetah photos and videos

Learn more about Panthera's Iranian Cheetah Project.