KUH-E BAFGH PROTECTED AREA, Iran (Reuters) - Iranian and Western wildlife experts are working together to save rare cheetahs from extinction in this arid, mountainous region, despite a nuclear row between their governments.
U.S.- and British-based conservation groups are backing a campaign spearheaded by Iran's Department of Environment (DoE) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to prevent the endangered Asiatic cheetah from dying out.
Iran is believed to host the only 60 - 100 Asiatic cheetahs left in the wild. Some eke out a living in a forbidding terrain of jagged peaks, deep gorges and bone-dry plains in the Kuh-e Bafgh protected area in Yazd province in central Iran.
The sleek and spotted cats once roamed between the Arabian peninsula and India, but their number in Iran is estimated to have fallen by roughly half in the last three decades.
"This is a wonderful case of the urgent conservation needs of the cheetah transcending political differences," executive director Luke Hunter of Panthera, a non-governmental organization (NGO) in New York, said in an e-mail.
The United States, which severed ties with Iran after its 1979 Islamic revolution, is leading efforts to isolate the Middle Eastern country over nuclear work Washington suspects is aimed at making bombs, a charge Tehran denies.
But Hunter, an Australian, said he believed "both Iranians and Americans realize that we cannot afford to allow politics to affect the cheetahs. If we did, we could lose them."
Iranian officials expressed similar views.
"I love anybody who works for conservation and wildlife protection. It doesn't matter who it is," said Ali Akhbar Karimi, a 59-year-old veteran from Iran's Department of Environment in Yazd province.
Until the first half of the 20th century, Iran was home to four of the so-called big cats -- including lions and tigers -- but now only leopards and cheetahs remain.
The Asiatic cheetah is closely related to its better-known African counterpart, a killing machine that can reach speeds of over 60 miles an hour in pursuit of its prey.
In Iran, cheetahs have been pushed close to extinction by increased population pressure and a lack of resources to protect them, with villagers hunting their prey for food and herds of sheep and goat encroaching on their habitats.
"We need to do something urgent to save them," said Iranian biologist Houman Jowkar, field director for U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Yazd.
"It is a national treasure."
The Kuh-e Bafgh Protected Area, stretching for 885 sq km (342 sq miles) across a remote part of Yazd, is one of five such pockets of land in Iran where the cheetah still holds out, despite the poaching of gazelles and other prey.
It is hard to believe anything or anybody can thrive in the rocky and bushy landscape, parched brown already in May.
Temperatures here soar to around 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) in the summer and plunge below freezing in winter.
Karimi said he had seen several cheetahs this year, including females with cubs, offering hope for the future.
None was in sight, however, when he took this reporter and a photographer on a three-hour trek across ravines and ridges.
Apart from the labored breathing of the Reuters crew struggling to keep up with Karimi, who scaled steep rocks with ease despite a history of heart attacks, absolute stillness reigned.
Scanning the landscape with his binoculars, Karimi said he suspected a leopard or a cheetah was nearby as the wild goats normally grazing here seemed to have been frightened off.
"These are the remains of a cheetah kill," he said pointing at a white bone lying on the ground.
Iran's Department of Environment and the UNDP joined forces to launch the cheetah project in 2001, with the help of well-known U.S. wildlife biologist George Schaller.
His emergency recommendations included increased anti-poaching efforts and the appointment of new game guards.
Panthera and the WCS provide funds, expertise and training, while the Zoological Society of London also gives money.
"FLAGSHIP CONSERVATION PROJECT"
In early 2007, the WCS introduced a program to trap up to eight of the cheetahs and fit them with radio-tracking collars to follow their movements and learn more about them.
"You must know where it lives exactly," said Jowkar.
Adapting to the harsh surroundings, Iran's cheetahs have developed different behavior from the cheetahs living in greater numbers on the savannahs of Africa.
Jowkar said there were signs the Iranian cats were active at night, and they also had thicker fur during winter.
Only two cheetahs have been caught so far and fitted with collars, and one of those was later killed by a leopard in a fight over food. But Jowkar said he hoped the capture season starting in November would be more successful.
"We know the area better, we know the habitat better, and probably we can catch more cheetahs," he said.
Mehdi Kamyab, a senior UNDP official in Tehran, described the campaign to save the wild cat as a "flagship conservation project" using new techniques and methods.
The initial $750,000 budget, for which the UNDP was responsible, has been virtually depleted but more would be injected, he said. The WCS and the DoE also provide funding.
"This is just a start, obviously. We need to build on this," Kamyab said. "It is still an endangered species."
Hunter said the program had so far been "reasonably successful" as cheetah numbers seemed to have stabilized. He praised the DoE for raising local awareness and increasing penalties for those killing the animals.
"However, there is still a very serious problem with the hunting of the cheetah prey in some areas," he said.
WCS Assistant Director Peter Zahler said his organization had the necessary U.S. and Iranian permits to work in Iran and had encountered no major political or logistical problems.
"Our donors, partners and both governments recognize that endangered wildlife cannot always wait for political solutions and that wildlife conservation is itself not a political activity," he said in an e-mail.
"In fact, engaging in such activities has a long history all over the world of bringing peoples, who are otherwise at odds on certain issues, to the table over a subject with which they are all in agreement."
(Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile)