The Asiatic Cheetah is a subspecies of a larger group that are found in Asia and Africa. It is the fastest animal on land and a very skilled hunter. Indiscriminate hunting and other human activities has made it one of the rarest animals on our planet.
Asiatic Cheetah is a magnificent animal that derives its name from the Sanskrit word Chitraka meaning 'the spotted one'. Once found all over South-West Asia, India, and her neighbors in the north west, it is now found only in Iran.
However, some rare sightings have also been reported from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Because of this, this predator which was once known as the Indian Cheetah, is now more popularly known as the Iranian Cheetah.
It prefers to live in dry, semi-desert areas with less vegetation.
The reason being this type of terrain suits its mode of hunting, which is running and attacking rather than stalking and pouncing on its prey. It thrives well in treeless plains or plains which are covered with bushes or medium and tall grasses.
Fastest on land, this animal is built for speed. It can reach an incredible speed of up to 70 mph.
Its long, slender body is balanced on strong, lean legs while its two and a half feet long tail helps it to maintain balance while taking sharp turns as it hunts down its prey.
Its body is usually four to five feet long and it can grow up to two and a half feet tall. Its tawny coat is made of short, coarse hair and is marked with its characteristic black spots from which it derives its name.
Usually a solitary hunter, the Asiatic Cheetah hunts during the day. This adaptation is to reduce direct conflict with other cats that hunt during the night.
It hunts by using its ability to run fast. It chases its prey and brings it down by the throat. Their favorite prey are gazelles, antelopes, wild goat, and wild sheep.
Threats to its Survival
Once the pride of the Indian Maharajas, this animal is now on the brink of extinction. The factors that have played an important role in their dwindling numbers are:
Loss of Prey
Encroachment by human population into the forests have resulted in the loss of habitat. Hunting and poaching of these herbivores by human beings has made food scarce for the feline.
Loss of Habitat
Increase in human population has not only caused the habitat of its preys to shrink but has also caused the cheetah to lose its home. Besides this, the habitat of the cheetah in Iran has been found to be rich in coal, copper and iron deposits.
Although mining itself is not a direct cause of the loss of habitat, allied activities like construction of roads and increase in traffic has led to more frequent confrontations between the Cheetah and human beings.
Hunting and Poaching
The Asiatic Cheetah has been a coveted kill for its coat. It was hunted to near extinction by the Indian Royalty and Europeans for its coat, which was a symbol of wealth and bravery.
The inherent problem with this cat is the lack of genetic diversity. It has descended from a small group of ancestors that interbred some thousands of years back. This has weakened its immune system, which in turn is one of the main reasons of the high mortality rate among the cubs.
Use in Hunting
One of the earliest reasons for the decline in the number of these cats is their use in hunting by man. It is the only cat that can be tamed and trained to hunt. The Indian emperor Akbar is believed to have had about 1000 of them to help him during his hunting expeditions.
It is for this reason that these cats were also referred to as the 'hunting leopards' by the British in India. However, the sad part is that these animals do not have the tendency of surviving well in captivity, which is why their numbers decreased drastically.
Conservation of the Asiatic Cheetah Project (CACP) has been launched by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the Department of Environment of Iran to preserve the population left in Iran.
Cheetah Friends is another group of young people who are trained to spread awareness amongst people about this beautiful animal. A program had been developed in Iran to train the herders who consider the cat a major threat to their livestock and often confuse it with some other carnivore.
The story of the fall of this magnificent animal that once proudly roamed the land from the Arabian Peninsula to India, to being reduced to less than a hundred in number today, is a grim reminder of how human activities have led to large-scale wildlife extinction.
Having already been listed as a critically endangered species in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals, there is an urgent need to address the rapid disappearance of this species from the face of the Earth.