CatSG

Asiatic cheetah

Acinonyx jubatus venaticus

IUCN Red List: Critically Endangered

Weight: 23-38 kg
Body length: 113-140 cm
Tail length: 60-84 cm
Longevity: at least 13 years
Litter size: 1-4 cubs

Description

The Asiatic cheetah (A. j. venaticus) is one of five recognised subspecies of the cheetah Acinonyx jubatus. Based on the average mammalian mutation rate and mtDNA estimate it is supposed that the Asiatic and the African cheetah have split up around 32,000-67,000 years ago. The Asiatic cheetah historically occurred from North Africa to central India, but nowadays only remains in Iran.

The cheetah has a tawny-coloured coat covered almost entirely with solid black spots, unlike the spots of a leopard (Panthera pardus) that are rosette shaped. Cheetahs are easily recognisable by their heavy black “tear lines” extending from the inner corner of each eye to the outer corner of the mouth.  Each cheetah has a unique spot pattern, often used for identification purposes. The coat colour and spot pattern of cheetahs may vary slightly - in arid, desert regions cheetahs are generally smaller and paler in colour.

Asiatic cheetahs may can be distinguished from African ones by a thinner, less woolly winter coat and the absence of a mane in the summer coat. Some authors stated that African cheetah has in general a darker or brighter fur colour, which is more denser spotted and has larger spots than the Asiatic cheetah. Cheetahs of the subspecies A. j. venaticus seem on average to be of smaller size and to have more inflated tympanic bullae than their African relatives.

The cheetah is well known for being the fastest land mammal and is built for speed with an elongated body and long legs. Cheetahs have numerous morphological adaptations for speed, including:

  • long limbs, large thigh muscles and a very flexible spine - enables cheetahs to take strides up to 7 m and cover about 29 m/s;
  • semi-retractable claws - the cheetah cannot completely retract its claws thereby giving extra grip when running and turning at high speeds;
  • a long tail - the tail is about half the head body length and helps the cheetah to maintain balance during their high speed hunts;
  • enlarged lungs, heart and nasal passages and smaller canines relative to other felids - a reduction in the size of roots of the upper canines allows a larger nasal aperture for increased air intake which is critical for allowing the cheetah to recover from its sprint while it suffocates its prey by throttling it.

The English name ‘cheetah’ comes from the Hindu word ‘chita’, meaning ‘spotted one’. The scientific name for cheetah is Acinonyx jubatus, where Acinonyx means ‘non-moving claws’ and jubatus means ‘maned’ or ‘crested’, referring to the mantle that cubs have on their neck and back. Cheetahs were kept as pets by humans for hundreds of years So called “cheetah keeper” were responsible for training and maintaining the cheetahs of royalties until 1500. 

Other names

Language/Country

Name

Arabic

fahd al sayad

English

Asiatic cheetah

French

guépard asiatique, guépard iranien

German

Asiatischer Gepard

Spanish

guepardo asiético

Status and Distribution

The cheetah is globally listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List. The subspecies A. j. venaticus is classified as Critically Endangered, nowadays only remaining in small populations in Iran with some occasional records from neighbouring countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.

Asiatic cheetahs occur at low densities over vast arid areas. Their population is thought to be currently stable. Before World War II, the cheetah population in Iran was estimated at around 400 individuals and to range over large steppe and desert areas in the east of the country and in some western areas. Afterwards, Asiatic cheetah and their prey species were highly reduced mainly due to poaching. The protection of cheetahs by law in 1959 led to an increase in numbers. In the late 1970s the population was estimated to be around 200-300 individuals, surviving in seven reserves. However, in 1979 the revolution caused wildlife conservation to stop for some years and cheetahs and their prey species were again subject to high exploitation. This led to the disappearance of Asiatic cheetahs from many areas and their restriction towards the foothills and mountainous habitats. From 1981 to September 1997 54 sightings and deaths of cheetahs were reported. The population was estimated at around 50-100 individuals with an average density of 1/2000 km². In 2001 the cheetah was supposed to be left in only five areas and the population was estimated at less than 60 or even 40 individuals. Nevertheless, some experts think that the population was still larger.

Between 2001 and 2011 around 99 cheetahs could be recorded. The cheetah population in Iran is, based on expert opinions, currently estimated to number 70-100 animals. An ongoing monitoring program, based on mark-recapture, gives, however, indications that the Asiatic cheetah population maybe is even smaller than the expert estimate. Cheetah habitat in Iran seems still to be connected, especially in the center of the country. The cheetahs occurring in Kalmand, Bafq, Ariz, Dare Anjir, Siahkouh and Abbas Abad seem to form a population unit. In the northeast of the country, Miandasht and Behkadeh offer Asiatic cheetah habitat and the species is known to breed there. At least three litters have been recorded since 2002. In Iran the cheetah has been recorded from at least 13 sites, covering nearly 5.4 million hectares.

Hundred years ago, the Asiatic cheetah was widely distributed. Historically, it occurred from North Africa, into the Arabian Peninsula, Palestine and Syria, eastward through Iraq, Iran, southern Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan to central India. It is thought that the Asiatic cheetah disappeared from Central Asia by the mid-1980s. In India the last record of an Asiatic cheetah dates back to 1948 when one individual was shot. In Afghanistan the Asiatic cheetah once could be found in the Helmand, Farah, Hari Ruda and Murghab basins. Since the 1950s there are no more sightings of the cheetah reported. 

Extant distribution area of the Asiatic cheetah (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015)

Habitat

The Asiatic cheetah mainly inhabits desert, semi-desert and open dry areas. In desert ecosystems they are found in hilly terrains and mountainous areas. Cheetahs occurring in Central Asia are found in semi-desert and desert plains, and foothills with a range of different vegetation types. Enough cover for hunting and resting seems to be an important habitat feature. The Asiatic cheetah occurs also in mosaic areas of plains and rolling mountains with various watercourses, where gazelle density is low. It seems that cheetah concentrate more on areas where it is easier to catch gazelles rather than on areas where gazelle abundance is high. 

Ecology and Behaviour

The cheetah is mainly active during the day, especially during early morning and late afternoon. The cheetah is well adapted to living in arid environments and as such is not an obligate drinker, satisfying its moisture requirements by drinking the blood or urine of their prey.

Prey density in Iran is quite low, thus it is likely that the home ranges of Asiatic cheetahs are very large. However, there is still only few data available. A coalition of two adult males in Bafq covered an area of more than 1700 km² within five months. A coalition of three males covered an area of approximately 4,862 km² between their birth and 3 years of age. Their mother covered at least an area of 3,629 km². The movement of another male cheetah covered at least a range of 807 km². All these Asiatic cheetahs ranged across multiple reserves in central Iran and crossed several roads when moving from one reserve to the other. It is not fully clear why the cheetahs move through vast areas of low suitability to reach another protected area. One possible explanation could be that low prey density, maybe related to poor vegetation cover in this arid climate, and poaching could trigger the lengthy movements of the Asiatic cheetah in Iran. Also patches of widely dispersed habitat maintaining essential resources such as medium-sized prey species can result in a large home range.

The largest group of cheetahs reported in Iran, based on sighting, was up to 10 individuals. However, based on hard evidence, the largest group reported consisted only of 5 individuals, a mother with her four cubs. In recent years, the observed group size was on average 2.3 animals.

Several male cheetahs were pictured in Iran when scent marking a sign post with urine. This scent marking behaviour maybe is crucial to allow overlap of home ranges with minimal direct encounters, while also enabling animals to find each other for breeding.

Based on the few available data on Asiatic cheetah, the peak of the birth season seems to be in March-April, but birth times may vary in different ecological regions. In the northern parts it seems to take place mainly in late March/early April. There are some observations of birth taking place outside the peak season, in late summer and/or early fall. 

Prey

Prey species concentrate periodically in dry watercourses and in the foothills of mountains, thus in such areas the cheetahs are likely to amount their hunting effort. Cheetahs are mainly diurnal and hunt by day. Its prey varies from small mammals such as rodents to small birds, up to ungulates. However, birds such as See-See partridge (Ammoperdix griseagularis), Chukar partridge (Alectoris chukar), black-bellied sandgrouse (Pterocles orientalis), Houbara bustard (Chlamydotis undulata), do not seem to play a significant role in the cheetah’s diet. Asiatic cheetahs do mainly feed on medium-sized herbivores. In Iran, they mainly prey on ungulates such as wild sheep (Ovis orientalis), wild goat (or Persian Ibex) (Capra aegagrus), chinkara (or Jebeer gazelle) (Gazella bennettii) and goitered gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa). The Asiatic cheetah also takes cape hares (Lepus capensis) and rarely wild boar (Sus scrofa). In most Iranian reserves, the main prey species are wild sheep, followed by wild goat. In the north of the country, the goitered gazelle, the dominant ungulate of the region, seem to be the main prey species. In central Asia, cheetahs have occasionally also taken young kulans (E. h. kulan) but in Iran, there are no reports of predation on Equus hemionus spp. In northeastern Iran, Asiatic cheetah prey occasionally on livestock. However, wherever wild prey is available, it is preferred by the cheetah. 

Main Threats

Poaching of cheetahs, depletion of their prey species, as well as habitat conversion and the construction of infrastructures such as highways, were the main causes of the Astiatic cheetah declines and extinctions.

Nowadays, in most areas in Iran, the main threat to the Asiatic cheetah is still the reduction of its prey. Another mayor threat is habitat loss mainly due to overgrazing caused by livestock, drought and desertification but also due to infrastructure development in desert areas and the existence of mineral reservoirs in areas where the cheetah occurs. Asiatic cheetahs also get killed on the growing road network and are sometimes killed by livestock owners.

Genetic analysis has shown that cheetahs, despite their wide geographic distribution, exhibit a very high level of homogeneity in coding DNA. The cheetah appears to have suffered a series of severe population bottlenecks in its history which may have led to inbreeding of few surviving individuals. Based on mitochondrial DNA the first such bottleneck may have taken place during the late Pleistocene extinctions around 10,000 years ago. Although these ancient population bottlenecks are not clear both their causes and consequences could be of significance to cheetah conservation today. The low genetic diversity is cause for concern due to the critically low number of Asiatic cheetahs left and their fragmented distribution. They maybe already suffer from loss of genetic diversity through random loss of rare genes and increased inbreeding. This can lead to lower birth rates, higher mortality and vulnerability to disease and parasites. 

Conservation Efforts and Protection Status

The cheetah is included in Appendix I of CITES and it is fully protected throughout most of its range. Hunting is prohibited in Iran and Afghanistan. The cheetah was declared protected in 1959 by the former Iranian Game Council.

In 2001, the Conservation of Asiatic Cheetah Project (CACP) and the Iranian Cheetah Society (ICS) were established with the aim to save the species in Iran. Since then, more information on the cheetah’s distribution and status in the country is available. Measures necessary to raise the protection level of cheetah habitat were implemented, education activities and awareness campaigns conducted, and conservation measures promoted. 

Interest among young researchers for cat, carnivore and wildlife conservation and research in general has increased through the Asiatic cheetah conservation work and international awareness was raised. The cheetah receives now high attention from the Iranian community. However, conservation measures have to go on to assure its long-term survival. More monitoring activities are still needed to provide sufficient data on the Asiatic cheetah’s distribution and status in Iran. This is essential for its conservation. Moreover, it is important to understand the factors influencing cheetah spatial ecology in order to develop effective and appropriate regional conservation strategies.

Most protected areas are not large enough to support a viable cheetah population. Therefore, effective conservation management also outside protected areas is of high importance. A crucial point for the long-term survival of the Asiatic cheetah is the provision of enough wild prey. Its prey species must be protected and poaching be prevented.