New Study Explores the Range Collapse of Asiatic Cheetahs

Asian Cheetah by Behnam Gorbani. CC BY-SA 4.0

Introduction

The Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) is in dire straits. There may be as few as 50 individuals left, placing this Critically Endangered subspecies on the brink of extinction.

Accompanying the Asiatic cheetah’s decline has been a dramatic range reduction. While it once inhabited lands from Sinai to India, the Asiatic cheetah is now found only in parts of Iran (Khalatbari, Yusefi, Martínez-Freiría, Jowkar, and Brito, 2018). A new paper explores why the Asiatic cheetah has lost so much territory, and what is likely to happen in the future.

Methods

Khalatbari et al. (2018) used a sampling exercise to determine which factors best determined where Asiatic cheetahs were found.

They incorporated: 519 records of cheetah observations – divided into historical and contemporary time periods; climatic variables; the slope of the terrain; the availability of Indian (Gazella bennettii) and goitered gazelles (Gazella subgutturosa); and proximity to six different “anthromes” (human-influenced landscapes).

In total, Khalatbari et al. (2018) tested eleven different variables. They used their dataset to construct two  different computer models for both the historical (1966-1990) and contemporary (1991-2015) time periods. Their results were as follows.

While this is a great photo, its title is misleading. This cheetah is clearly yawning and stretching, not roaring. Cheetahs do not roar. Iranian Cheetah Roars by Tasnim News Agency. CC BY 4.0

Results

Khalatbari et al. (2018) found that the availability of Indian gazelles was the most closely linked variable to Asiatic cheetah distribution in the historical time period. The other key factors were the availability of goitered gazelles, slope, and distance to croplands.

Findings were slightly different for the contemporary period. In this case, the availability of Indian gazelles and distance to wildlands (e.g. protected areas) were the second and third most important variables, respectively.

However, the most significant factor for Asiatic cheetah distribution in the contemporary period was the maximum temperature of the warmest month. The cats’ range also moved slightly to warmer areas between the historical and contemporary periods – while contracting greatly.

Future projections predicted even more range collapse and fragmentation for Asiatic cheetahs. Khalatbari et al.’s (2018) models showed the subspecies being split into three sections; while simultaneously becoming more dependent on protected areas.

Discussion

Access to gazelles was critical for Asiatic cheetahs in both the historical and contemporary time periods.

Unfortunately, both Indian and goitered gazelles have suffered large population and range declines over the past 30 years: largely due to habitat conversion and human hunting (Khalatbari et al., 2018). Obviously, then, restoring gazelle populations should be a central part of Asiatic cheetah conservation.

The availability of Indian gazelles was an important factor for both the historical and contemporary time periods. Indian Gazelle (Gazella bennettii) by Bernard DUPONT. CC BY-SA 2.0

It also appears that human activities have forced Asiatic cheetahs to use warmer habitats than they prefer. This is worrying, since climate change is likely to make such areas even less hospitable in the not-too-distant future. As such, another imperative is to improve former Asiatic cheetah habitats and allow the cats to return to them.

Khalatbari et al. (2018) also recommend building wildlife crossings across roads to cut down on car-cheetah collisions, and working with local people to increase support for Asiatic cheetah conservation.

Closing Thoughts

This has been a brief summary of an important paper. Given the precarious standing of Asiatic cheetahs, every effort should be taken to help them recover. I recommend visiting this link to read Khalatbari et al.’s (2018) full article – thereby learning more about this unique and extraordinary cat.

Further Reading:

Range contraction of the Asiatic cheetah during last century is related to prey availability and climate change – Khalatbari, Yusefi, Martínez-Frería, Jowkar, and Brito (2018).

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