The cheetahs of Iran

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Iranian Cheetah
Asiatic cheetahs; what an exotic concept you may think. Actually “cheetah” is an anglicized form of the Hindi cītā, which in turn is derived from the Sanskrit word chitraka meaning “speckled”. Even the Dutch name for cheetah, jachtluipaard (hunting leopard) has its roots in Asia – they were used by Indian royalty to hunt antelope.

An ancient relationship with man:
Recently recovered artifacts have led to claims that cheetahs were first tamed in Persia (Iran) 4,500 years ago, in stead of the commonly held belief that they were first tamed in Egypt.

Iranian artifact depicting cheetahs

5,000 year old artifact discovered in southeastern Iran, depicting a man surrounded by dancing cheetahs

The Asiatic cheetah once had a distribution that extended across the Middle East, Central Asia, north into southern Kazakhstan and southeast into India. Today, it has been extirpated from its entire Asiatic range, except for a small and critically endangered population in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

As the last stronghold of Acinonyx jubatus venaticus, Iran is home to about 100 cheetahs roaming across the mountainous desert areas in the eastern half of the country. Due to excessive poaching of their traditional prey, gazelle, Iranian cheetahs have adapted to exist in mountainous areas, hunting wild sheep and goat.


Interesting fact:
Compare the Iranian cheetah numbers to the 300 African cheetahs found in the Serengeti/Masai Mara, a huge conservation area where they compete for survival with about 3000 lions and 1000 leopards.

Oil and gas drilling, agriculture and livestock farming and deforestation are all encroaching on the biodiversity of Iran, especially with regards to the habitat of the last Asiatic cheetahs. The situation is exacerbated by the current political and economic pressures on the country. A good example of how sanctions may have an unintended negative impact on non-targeted sections of an embargoed society.

Conservation projects:

Five Asiatic cheetahs in Khar Turan NP, Iran

Five Asiatic cheetahs spotted in Khar Turan NP, Iran
(Photo: Amirhossein Khaleghi /PWHF/CACP/UNDP/DOE)

Where to find them:
The desert areas around Dasht-e Kavir in the eastern half of Iran, including parts of the Kerman, Khorasan, Semnan, Yazd, Tehran, and Markazi provinces. Most live in five sanctuaries: Kavir National Park, Khar Turan National Park, Bafq Protected Area, Daranjir Wildlife Reserve, and Naybandan Wildlife Reserve. During a much celebrated recent sighting, conservationists photographed a female cheetah with four cubs in Khar Turan National Park in northern Iran.

Asiatic cheetahs are not the only rare mammals native to Iran. Others include the goitered gazelle, the Persian wild ass, Persian leopards, Eurasian lynx, Asiatic Black Bear and Iranian wolf. The country contains a bewildering mix of animals usually only found in either Africa or Asia.

Under the new reformist administration of Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, tourism has been identified as a priority for the sanction hit country. A recent statement by the head of the country’s cultural heritage and tourism organisation stressed that the country will be relaxing its strict visa requirements within the next few months, which would mean no visas or visas upon arrival for many countries’ citizens. If that will apply to South African passport holders as well remains to be seen. Travellers with US, Canadian or UK passports will most probably not fall under the less restrictive visa conditions. Currently the Iranian embassy in Pretoria still requires a long list of documents from prospective tourists, with fairly long visa processing times (14 – 21 days). Remember that travellers cheques issued by American Financial Institutions and Banks are NOT accepted in Iran – an extra hurdle in your quest to see the fabled Asiatic cheetah.

Fascinating lecture by renowned wildlife photographer, Frans Lanting, juxtaposing the habitats and challenges of African and Iranian cheetahs. The video includes rare footage of Iranian cheetahs living in the most extreme conditions; mountainous deserts with heavy snowfall in winter. Hopefully awareness of their plight and continued research and education will secure their existence for the wonderment of future generations.

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