I am looking at two sketches in my notebook that a Turkmen horse breeder named Murat is drawing in front of me. One is of a large cat with big spots and short legs; the other, a sleek cat with a long tail. One is a leopard. For a minute, I think the other one is an Akhal-Teke, the descendant of the ancient Turkmen horse, the pride and “wings of the hearts” of the Turkmen people, known as the “fusion of snake, cheetah, and eagle."
He presses his finger against it and says “ghepard,” which means "cheetah" in Russian and adds, “I saw it one late afternoon not far from Kopet Dag mountains, west of them…two years ago."
It is my second visit to Turkmenistan, in most part to attend with Kyrgyz businessman and horse breeder Nourlan Mamyrov events to celebrate the pride and glory of Turkmenistan, the Akhal-Teke horse (more commonly known as the “Golden Horse”). Horses are part of my life. I learned to hold on to a horse’s mane before I learned how to walk. After a long stint as a professional dressage rider during my teenage years, today I mostly hold on to a horse’s mane to climb steep mountains to place and collect camera traps for snow leopards.
Throughout my wildlife conservation life, I've seen passion and knowledge of horses in certain societies help soften social and cultural boundaries--and develop common ground over contentious conservation and wildlife issues.
As I later watch Turkmen President, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, gently stroke his beautiful golden steed and whisper soft somethings in his ear, I wonder whether the shared love of the Akhal-Teke, together with that of Turkmenistan’s environment and heritage, can become an opportunity to convince the president to take a key role in the conservation of the country’s golden wild felids, the Persian leopard and the Asiatic cheetah.
Turkmenistan is a country of rugged beauty, mystery, and beautiful and welcoming people. In 2014, researchers Petra Kaczensky and John Linnell traveled to Badhyz State Nature Reserve in southern Turkmenistan and surrounding wildlife sanctuaries (Gyzyljar and Chemenabat) to assess the status of several important prey species for leopards and cheetah, including the urial and goitered gazelle. They told of leopard tracks but reported that Asiatic cheetahs have not been seen in the reserve since the 1960s (Breitenmoser 2002).
The status of the Asiatic cheetah in Iran is quite dire: In the past 15 years, 48 cheetahs are believed to have died--seven from natural causes, 21 at the hands of farmers, 15 in car accidents, and five as a result of hunting.
In 2016, Kaveh, one of the Persian leopards collared by Mohammad Farhadinia of Future4Leopards crossed from Tandoureh National Park in the Kopet Dag mountains into Turkmenistan and came very close to Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. It has likely settled there.
But could cheetahs have crossed into Turkmenistan from Iran? Amirhossein Khaleghi of the PWHF writes that there has been no hard evidence of cheetahs on the Iran-Turkmenistan border in almost a couple of decades. But around three years ago, based on a hunter report, a survey was done indicating the possibility of cheetah presence. And around that time, the IRS documented a large family of Asiatic cheetahs in Miandasht Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Iran near the border of Turkmenistan, some 150 km from the Turkmen border. Similarly, the PWHF team documented a group of cheetahs in Touran Biosphere Reserve west of Miandasht. One cheetah was also spotted in Golestan National Park after 40 years.
The opportunity to make a tangible difference in Turkmenistan to conserve Persian leopards is real, given documented crossings between Iran and Turkmenistan, as well as documented presence in the Kopet Dag mountains and the Badhyz reserve. And perhaps there is still a slim chance to give the Asiatic cheetah the opportunity to reoccupy its historic range. If the sightings of locals like Murat can be corroborated, then there is no time to lose.
My proposition: Run a transect from Ashgabat to south of the Haserdag reserve along the Iranian border. I see no better way than doing so on the back of an Akhal-Teke, who has been compared to the cheetah, with a long back and legs, high shoulders, and strong muscles. And perhaps President Berdimuhamedow may want to lead this expedition.
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