Elusive Cheetahs Caught on Film

A family of extremely rare Asiatic cheetahs rest in the shade ofa tree to escape the heat. Credit: I.R.Iran (Image credit: P/WCS/ UNDP-GEF)

Wildlife researchers in Iran have captured images of an entire family of extremely rare Asiatic cheetahs.

The pictures show an adult female and four young cubs resting in the shade of a tree. The researchers used hidden cameras, though at one point a cheetah approached the camera and nuzzled it with its snout.

The family of cheetahs was spotted in an isolated region of the Dar-e Anjir Wildlife Refuge in Iran and was part of a wildlife survey conducted by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), in cooperation with Iran's Department of Environment (DOE).

"As a species, the cheetah is still in dire straits in Iran," said Peter Zahler, assistant director for WCS's Asia Programs. "So it is extremely encouraging to see an apparently healthy family in their native habitat."

Asiatic cheetahs once ranged throughout the Middle East and Asia, but are today one of the rarest species of wild cats on the planet. Scientists estimate that fewer than 60 survive on the entire Asian continent, and that most of them are found in Iran.

The fastest land animals on Earth, cheetahs are capable of reaching speeds of up to 70 miles per hour in short bursts while sprinting. In ancient times, Iranian emperors used Asiatic cheetahs to chase down fleet-footed gazelles.

In 1970, scientists estimated that between 100 to 400 Asiatic cheetahs were left in Iran. Widespread poaching of the cheetahs and their prey during the early years of the country's 1978 revolution, along with loss of habitat due to livestock grazing, have pushed this rare species of predatory cats to the brink of extinction.

"The fact that this female has managed to raise four cubs to six months of age is extremely encouraging," said Luke Hunter, coordinator of WCS's Global Carnivore Program. "Hopefully, this indicates there are areas where the cheetah's prey species are coming back."