NEW YORK (Aug. 29, 2005) -- Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)scientists, working in conjunction with Iran's Department ofEnvironment (DOE) in an isolated region in the Dar-e Anjir WildlifeRefuge, recently discovered that a remote camera set out to surveywildlife had photographed an entire family of extremely rare Asiaticcheetahs. The pictures show an adult female and her four youngstersresting in the shade of a tree, marking the largest-known group ofthese rare cats ever photographed in Asia.
Once ranging from the Red Sea to India, the Asiatic cheetah today ishanging on by only the thinnest of threads. Fewer than 60 exist on theentire Asian continent, mostly on Iran's arid central plateau, whereWCS and Iranian biologists have been conducting surveys of this highlyendangered big cat since 2001.
"As a species the cheetah is still in dire straits in Iran, soit is extremely encouraging to see an apparently healthy family intheir native habitat," said Dr. Peter Zahler, assistant director forWCS's Asia Programs. "Images like these give hope to conservationiststhat there is still time to save these magnificent animals."
Initiated by a major grant and ongoing support from the UnitedNations Development Program's Global Environment Facility, WCS beganits collaboration with Iranian scientists by surveying five protectedareas where cheetahs were still thought to exist. The group found avariety of suitable habitat, but also discovered that prey species,such as jebeer gazelle and urial sheep, were scarce. The latestphotographs hint at the gradual recovery of prey populations.
"Cheetahs in Iran live on a knife-edge in very marginalhabitat," said Dr Luke Hunter, coordinator of WCS's Global CarnivoreProgram. "The fact that this female has managed to raise four cubs tosix months of age is extremely encouraging. Hopefully, this indicatesthere are areas where the cheetah's prey species are coming back, agoal the Iranian DOE and UNDP has been working very hard to achieve."
In the 1970s, estimates of the number of cheetahs in Iranranged from 100 to 400 animals. But widespread poaching of cheetahs andtheir prey during the early years of the 1978 revolution, along withdegradation of habitat due to livestock grazing, have pushed thisimportant predator to the brink of extinction. Once known as "huntingleopards," cheetahs have played a significant historical role inIranian culture being trained by its emperors to hunt gazelles inancient times.
Asiatic cheetahs went extinct throughout much of the MiddleEast about 100 years ago, though they occurred in Saudi Arabia untilthe 1950s. They vanished in India in 1947; spotty records claim theyranged in Central Asia as far as Kazakhstan from the 1960s through1980s.
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