| KUH-E BAFGH PROTECTED AREA, Iran
KUH-E BAFGH PROTECTED AREA, Iran 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
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)