Iran moves to save last 'mascot' Asiatic cheetahs
GARMSAR, IRAN - AFP
Iranian environmentalists have mobilized to protect the world's last Asiatic cheetahs, estimated to number just 50 and faced with the threats of becoming roadkill, a shortage of prey and farmers' dogs.
"The last time our photo traps caught a cheetah here, it was two years ago. But we're sure they are still in the region," said Rajab Ali Kargar, deputy head of the National Protection Project for the Asiatic Cheetah.
His camp is just a stone's throw from an old royal hunting pavilion in the Garmsar area of Semnan province, around 120 kilometers south of Tehran, but these days the focus is on preservation rather than killing.
The world's fastest land animal, capable of reaching speeds of 120 kilometers per hour, once stalked habitats from the eastern reaches of India to the Atlantic coast of Senegal.
Their numbers have stabilized in parts of southern Africa, but they have practically disappeared from northern Africa and Asia.
The subspecies "Acinonyx jubatus venaticus," commonly known as the Asiatic cheetah, is critically endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, mostly due to past hunting.
Iran launched its protection project in 2001 with the support of the United Nations "when we realized Iran was the last country to have any Asiatic cheetahs," said Hooman Jokar, who heads the program.
It set up a network, now numbering 92 specially trained park wardens, who cover a total of six million hectares in central and northern Iran.
"Every day, we cover hundreds of kilometers to track wild animals in the park," said warden Reza Shah-Hosseini, as some 20 gazelles galloped past behind him.
There were 20 sightings of the cheetah in Semnan province last year.
"Many think that without this program the cheetah would have totally disappeared from Iran," said Jokar.