With just 50 of their kind left, Asiatic cheetahs find an ally in legendary field biologist George Schaller.
By Vicki Croke
It was a call on a cell phone from a herdsman in Iran saying, “There are some carnivores chasing some gazelles near us!” that tipped off George Schaller. Schaller’s team, including the herdsman’s son, raced a short distance by car across the scrubby desert terrain to the edge of the Miandasht reserve at the northeast corner of the country.
When they located the herder riding his donkey, he pointed to a spot about 300 yards away from his goats and sheep. Schaller, squinting into his binoculars, saw three of the rarest, most critically endangered cats on earth—the animals he had come here to help, but never expected to see, since even rangers rarely glimpse them—a mother Asiatic cheetah and her two large cubs.
Their sand-hued, spotted coats, lighter in color than those of the African cheetah, seemed at moments to practically erase the family from the desert background. “It’s very strange,” Schaller says, “because they’re very pale animals in a plain habitat of short shrub. So, it’s almost like a vision.”
That mirage-like image underscores the story of a sub-species that has nearly vanished over time. Once plentiful from the Middle East to India and central Asia, they are needles in a haystack now—with an estimated 50 wild Asiatic cheetahs alive today, spread thinly over thousands of miles of harsh terrain in and around the central desert of Iran.
They are smaller and even thinner than African cheetahs. And in the colder climate, they can grow a more substantial coat, giving them a more “fuzzy” look, and, as Schaller says, they can “even have a little mane.”
They are in bigger trouble than the more numerous African cheetahs whose population stands at something like 10,000. Still, Schaller says that the Iranian government is committed to saving these cats from extinction, and he wants to help make that happen. If anyone can, it’s George Schaller.
Highlights from camera trap footage of the Asiatic cheetah taken by Panthera in cooperation with other groups. Video: ICS/DOE/CACP/PANTHERA.
Wildlife rainmaker. Fixer. Miracle worker. For decades, Schaller has done some of the earliest and best studies of mountain gorillas (pre-Dian Fossey), lions, tigers, giant pandas, and, as fans of Peter Matthiessen’s classic book featuring Schaller know, snow leopards.
Schaller, the most respected field biologist of our time, has conducted studies in some of the most forbidding landscapes on the planet, and been invited into countries or areas where few other Americans are welcome.
This time around, he’s working with two conservation groups he’s long been associated with—Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization, and the Wildlife Conservation Society. They are among the very few American conservation NGOs allowed into Iran, and they cooperate with the Iranian Department of Environment as well as local NGOs.
Schaller has made five trips to cheetah habitat in Iran, starting in 2000. His most recent one in February, was his first in 10 years and he seems to be making up for lost time.
His mission—to reassess the current state of these cats and the conservation efforts to save them—is an urgent one. As he says, “What I’ve been working on with my Iranian co-workers is what they need to do right now.” It was last month that he hit the ground running. Traveling with Iranian biologists and conservationists, he canvassed several parks and reserves in and around the great central desert of Iran, and was quickly able to draw up a punch list for cheetah survival: Cars, dogs, and gazelle poachers on high-speed motorcycles head up a list of threats.
Cheetahs in Iran are spread out over a large, harsh habitat, and camera trap evidence shows that they sometimes travel 100 miles between reserves—often having to cross highways or roads. Half of all Asiatic cheetahs who die each year are killed by cars. “Cars speed like mad,” Schaller says, “and in one area they killed two females and two cubs within a 15 kilometer stretch.”
The solution is wildlife overpasses and wildlife corridors between parks, and to enforce regulations to slow vehicles down in critical crossing areas. Schaller, who works closely with Houman Jowkar, the head of the Conservation of the Asiatic Cheetah Project, says, “the government is seriously planning on that.”
Within the parks, there are other threats. Cheetahs are the fastest land animals and famously can reach speeds of up to 75 mph. But they are left in the dust when it comes to losing their favorite prey to poachers on souped-up motorcycles. Schaller says that men on powerful bikes “roar through the nature reserves, chase the gazelles till they exhaust them, then take them home and eat them. And gazelles are the main cheetah food.” Park guards, riding “slow, old Suzuki motorcycles” don’t have a chance of catching the culprits.
In his field report, Schaller notes the toll this can take, “In the Kalmand reserve near Yazd the gazelle population declined from about 2,000 to 200 within a few years.”
Then there are the dogs. Cheetahs are built for running not brawling. And they are vulnerable to the large, powerful, and often nearly feral mastiff-type dogs who accompany herdsmen into parks. Schaller says it is known that five cheetahs have been killed in the past three years by these dogs. And he argues that the dogs are unnecessary to the shepherds—they don’t actually herd sheep and goats, and they are not needed to protect the flocks since the shepherds are always with them. “Dogs should be completely banned from national parks and wildlife refuges,” Schaller writes.
“Unless they solve this issue,” Schaller says, “they’re going to lose their cheetahs. And, in fact, I’m not even sure what to do with some of these areas which have so few cheetahs that the death of even one has a huge impact.”
Is captive breeding the answer as some have suggested? Schaller doesn’t think so. Cheetahs breed poorly in captivity, though clearly there have been successes, often at zoos, but there are also so many difficulties associated with reintroducing captive-bred animals to the wild. More than that, Schaller notes, wild cheetahs would have to be captured to even start a captive breeding program. And there are so few Asiatic cheetahs left, “you can’t afford to take any out of the wild—then there would be less in the wild.”
Having more cheetahs in the wild, of course, is the goal. And that point was poetically driven home for Schaller on his last day in the field in Iran. It was then, with just hours left till he headed back to Tehran, the capital, that he was able to watch the mother cheetah and her cubs from a respectful distance.
“That was a real gift from nature,” Schaller says. Seeing the cheetahs in person is something that “no picture, no scientific paper can replace.”
Produced by Christen Goguen. Originally appeared on WBUR’s The Wild Life and Here&Now.