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The Asiatic Cheetah: Struggle for Survival

Updated: Dec 21, 2023


Asiatic cheetahs in Iran. Photo credit: nbcnews.com

Wildlife scientists say that for any species to be considered stable, their population should be at least 3,000. It is assumed that in the ecosystem in which a stable species lives, sufficient food and water is always available.


Knowing this fact, at present, there are about 7,100 cheetahs in the wild in the continent of Africa. However, per the latest census, there are only 12 Asiatic cheetahs (nine males and three females) in Iran’s wilderness - they are critically endangered.


A female cheetah with her three cubs in Iran. Photo credit: mongabay.com/ photo-by-ICS-DoE-CACP/Panthera

Three male cheetah cubs born in Iran. They are doing well. Photo credit: cnn.com

History of the Asiatic Cheetah: Grim Past

The Asiatic cheetahs diverged from their African counterparts around 32,000 to 67,000 years ago. They could be found on the Arabian Peninsula to the Caspian Zone in Northern South Asia. However, by the 1800’s they were exterminated from these regions except in Iran and India. In Iran, the cheetahs were hunted for sport but also because they competed with man for the same food resources.


Asiatic cheetahs were hunted down to near extinction in Iran. Sadly, here is a dead female cheetah and her dead cub. Photo credit: Mongabay.com

These cheetahs have served as pets since around 3,000 BCE (Before Common Era). Sumerians depicted a leashed cheetah with a hood on its head on an official seal. During this period, in Egypt, the cheetah was revered as a symbol of royalty in the form of the cat goddess Mafdet. Many famous historical figures, such as Genghis Khan, Charlemagne, and Akbar the Great of India housed cheetahs, with the latter having more than 1,000 in his stable. Trained and tame, they were typically hooded and carried on horseback or in a cart, then with the hood removed were released near their quarry. This practice continued in India well into the early 1900s. By 1948, the last of the cheetahs was killed. In 1952, the Indian government declared the cheetah extinct in the country.


Maharaja Sher Singh (reigned 1841-1843) being presented with a cheetah; India, Panjab, Jalandhar, circa 1840–1845. Photo credit: en.wikipedia.org.

Emperor Akbar Hunting with Cheetahs. Photo credit: en.wikipedia.org.

Last of the tame cheetah cubs in India. Photo credit: indpaedia.com/Major G.S. Rodon, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Date: 17 August 1897. Place Dharwar, South India.

Last of the tame cheetah cubs in India. Photo credit: indpaedia.com/Major G.S. Rodon, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Date: 17 August 1897. Place Dharwar, South India.

Asiatic cheetahs in India circa 1930s-1940s. Photo credit: ndtv.com.

Asiatic cheetahs returning from hunt in Hyderabad state, India, circa 1900. Photo credit: conservationindia.com.

 

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Introduction of African Cheetahs in India: Hope For the Future

As mentioned, the African and Asian cheetah lineage diverged thousands of years ago. Therefore, there is some change in their genetic traits. On September 17, 2022, India imported eight cheetahs from Namibia. Further, they imported 12 more cheetahs from South Africa on February 18, 2023. Sadly four cheetahs died due to various natural causes. But the most heartening news was that four cubs were also born!


Cheetah cubs born in Kuno National Park, India. They are doing great. Photo credit: tourmyindia.com

These cheetahs were released in the beautiful, pristine, lush 289.1 sq miles (748.8 sq Km), Kuno National Park in North India. This park is known for its wildlife. The prey species include blackbuck, chital deer, sambar, chinkara, and more. There are around 81 tigers, Indian wolves, jackals, and the striped hyenas. However, the park is large enough and the food supply is abundant. Additionally, the river Kuno, which flows through the park also harbors Indian crocodiles.


Panoramic view of Kuno National park, India. Photo credit: tourmyindia.com

Indian Black Buck and the African Thomson’s Gazelle

The Indian blackbuck is an antelope found nowhere else in the world. In Africa, the Thomson’s gazelle is an antelope that looks similar to the Indian species. The former used to be the main prey of cheetahs in India. The latter is the main prey of the African cheetahs. Of course, both species also hunt other medium sized ungulates.


Blackbuck. Found only in India. Photo credit: Indiatimes.com

The majestic Thomson’s gazelle. Photo credit: livescience.com

Managing the Cheetahs and Its Challenges

The introduction of cheetahs in the Kuno National Park was planned meticulously. The cheetahs were initially housed in closed enclosures to enable them to recover from their long journey from Namibia. A team of veterinary doctors carried out extensive checkups. They were released into the wild slowly to enable them to get adjusted to their new environment. These special cheetahs were fitted with radio frequency collars and monitored day in and day out. The Indian government spent a lot of money on this project. Since these cheetahs were the national pride, they were guarded well.


Cheetahs released in Kuno National Park, India by Prime Minister Narendra Modi (wearing hat). Photo credit: kunonationalpark.org

Cheetahs are the only carnivores that do not eat carrion. They only eat fresh meat. In India this problem may not be that prevalent, however, there are other challenges.

Around 12,000 years ago, the cheetah population across the globe fragmented and got isolated. The result was inbreeding resulting in the cheetah sperm becoming weak and of lower quality. Consequently, even though cheetahs breed throughout the year, their mortality rate is high – this was the sole reason for the deaths of four cheetahs in a short period of time in India. Also, a challenge, is that the Indian wildlife authorities cannot let the population of cheetahs grow beyond what the ecosystem can sustain. And finally, poachers. They are always a threat anywhere in the world.


Did You Know?

In the Indian language Hindi, cheetahs are called “chitas” which prompted the British to name them “cheetahs”.


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