How many Asiatic cheetahs still prowl on the planet earth? Compared to their African cousins, the Asiatic cheetah is more imperiled and known to be a critically endangered subspecies. Yet, no reliable estimates of its population are available despite such statistics being required as essential input for conservation and management plans. Despite this, several organizations did not tarry to find answers and to initiate conservation attempts.

The historical distribution of this member of the cat family used to range across diverse and vast areas from the Indian subcontinent, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran to the Peninsula of Arabia and Syria. In 1977 the last cheetah was recorded in Oman and it is believed that today the Asiatic cheetah’s population is confined to the Iran’s boundary. Observation records show that cheetahs have ceased to roar across the terrains of Saudi Arabia (1973), Pakistan (1972), India (1947), Kuwait (1942) and Iraq (1929), according to Hooshang Ziaie’s Field Guide to the Mammals of Iran.

The evidence pointing towards the cheetahs’ extinction from its formerly inhabited regions was strong enough to convince international and national organizations to take an action. In 2001, the United Nation Development Programme (UNDP) and Global Environmental Facility (GEF) funded a four-year conservation project with the budget of $725,000. Iran’s Department of Environment (DoE) also supposed to provide the same amount of budget in kind. However, the project was prolonged for 8 years; and DoE contributed more than the aforementioned tranche. The project, called the Conservation of Asiatic Cheetah and Its Habitat Project (CACP), was assisted by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and later by the Panthera organization. Additionally, several Iranian NGOs cooperated with CACP, conducting field surveys and enhancing the awareness of local people.

In 2009, a team consisting of Iranian and international consultants evaluated whether the outcomes of project concurred with its original goals of the proposal. The evaluation was difficult for the following reasons: repeated extensions of the project’s duration lasted; related fluctuations in managerial boards of the project (up to evaluation period, both the national and international project directors changed four times each. Changes repeated one more time for both positions after the assessment); a serious dispute over a lack of findings between a contracted Iranian NGO, on one hand, and DoE and UNDP, on the other; difficulties for staff and equipment of WCS, an important scientific partner, to enter the country due to delayed visa issuance; and finally practical problems such as miscommunication between the international and national evaluators in terms of technical language.

Regardless of these problems, however, a consistent issue across the board and mentioned repeatedly in the evaluation report is that the first and most prominent question has not been answered since initiation of the project: what is a reliable estimate of the cheetahs’ population in Iran? While answering this formidable question is necessary for the design of a conservation plan, including the setting of priorities and identification of habitat hot spots, it is an arduous effort. The cheetahs’ low number, intense shyness, and ability to camouflage make the search for these individuals scattered across the habitats of two vast Iranian deserts akin to finding a needle in a haystack. “It is assumed that the cheetah population has even increased in recent years, but neither the initial baseline information nor the newest population estimates are reliable enough to assess this assumption”, according to evaluation report.

Some sporadic attempts at camera-trapping have been carried out to estimate the number of cheetahs since CACP began, but none proved to be adequate. “In ten years of setting out scores of cameras, Iranian researchers have so far managed to obtain a mere 192 fleeting images. Those images document 76 gaunt individuals, pretty much all that remains of a noble subspecies of cheetah that once roamed throughout much of Asia”, writes Roff Smith in a November 2012 National Geographic article.

Dr. Luke Hunter, President of Panthera, the organization assisting the CACP in scientific work, told me: “incidentally, the most up to date figure is 77 individuals. This is not a population estimate, it is just the total number of known individuals photographed since 2001; most of those animals are now dead.”

In the same month that the issue of National Geographic was published, the director of DoE cited at least 50 individual cheetahs to be living in Iran. Previously, it was presumed that Iran has a cheetah population revolving around 70-120 individuals, based on Iranian biologists’ guesstimations. Subsequently, complementary information about the cheetahs’ status has been released. “Scientific and comprehensive camera-trapping has been conducted in 7 out of 9 cheetah habitats. Preliminarily analysis revealed that at least 50 individual cheetahs exist in Iran,” Hooman Jowkar, the latest national director of CACP, said on a TV broadcast. He, in a recently published interview, said that just 20 individual cheetahs were identified through 200 images taken by camera-traps. However, this number of individual cheetahs is not representative of the species’ total population in Iran.

Dr. Hunter pointed out that the number is uncertain: “We simply do not have a good estimate of the cheetah’s population. I am worried that the recent camera-trapping results were less positive than in the past, so it is possible the numbers are as low as 50 cheetahs. But we cannot say that for certain. The best we can probably say is somewhere between 50 to 100 individuals.”

Addressing possible reasons for uncertainty in the estimate Jowkar noted in a wildlife conference held in Teheran: “the focus is just on specific protected areas; and it is not possible to conduct camera-trapping during fall and winter when cheetah is physically most active. Occurrence of livestock in those habitats is the most important challenge. Also, the method should be repeated in the next year in order to produce more reliable results.”

The second phase of CACP had been initiated in January 2009 to run as a four-year project with a budget of $4 million funded by national and international organizations. Recently, it was announced that the project will be extended until 2015. The news brought renewed hope and enthusiasm that not only the population size of the Asiatic cheetah could be scientifically estimated at last, but also that a conservation strategy plan will be compiled. To design and implement such plan could save the cheetah from the blade edge of extinction.

Image: Drawing by H. Weir, 1885. Routledge's Picture Natural History by the Rev. J. G. Wood, engraved by the Dalziel brothers.