March 6, 2007

Conserving the Iranian Cheetah Population

The Iranian conservation groups have been working with the Wildlife Conservation Society to preserve the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah:

An international team of scientists led by the Wildlife Conservation Society working in Iran has successfully fitted two Asiatic cheetahs with Global Positioning System (GPS) collars, marking the first time this highly endangered population of big cats can be tracked by conservationists. Once found throughout the continent, Asiatic cheetahs now live only in extremely arid habitat on the edges of Iran's Kavir Desert. WCS's government partner in Iran, the Department of Environment/CACP project estimates their remaining numbers between 60 and 100 animals, making the Asiatic cheetah one of the most imperiled cats on earth.

[...]

"This is an amazing milestone in securing the long-term future for the Asiatic cheetah," said Wildlife Conservation Society biologist Dr. Luke Hunter, who led the international team. "We know very little about the important ecological needs of the species in Iran except that they require vast areas for their survival. Understanding their movements as they travel between reserves is one of the first steps in establishing a plan to secure and connect the few remaining populations of this incredible animal."

What's the difference between the African and Asiatic cheetahs?

Well, the Asiatic cheetah is generally more boldly marked, its tail is a bit different and they often have white tips to their ears. The entire species went through a genetic bottleneck about 10,000 years ago, so the differences between individual cheetahs, not to mention populations, are slim, despite their substantial historical range.

There was talk of cloning the cheetah to reintroduce a population in India, where the cat has been nonexistent since 1953 . Researchers in India were working with the Iranian government and local conservation groups to procure live specimens, or at the very least, tissue samples from Iran.

"Biotechnological intervention for the long-term conservation of species is a sound and most modern way of saving species that are headed towards extinction," the team leader, Dr Lalji Singh, was quoted as saying by the Indian Express newspaper.

Dr Singh and his team will take the genetic material from live cheetah cells and fuse it with empty leopard eggs. Any resulting embryos would then be carried to term in leopard surrogates.

The project never panned out, however.

Iran has refused to send two cheetahs — a male and a female — to India for research purposes. They have also refused to allow a team of scientists from Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) to travel to Iran to collect sperm and tissue samples from a cheetah in a zoo there.

The final refusal was made just as Iranian President Mohammad Khatami was on his way out, and Ahmadinejad stepped up to replace him. There may be no connection here whatsoever, but this type of action seems consistent with the new president's xenophobic policies.

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