When Iran’s football team takes to the field at this year’s World Cup competition in Brazil, it will sport on its jerseys not only its country’s insignia like all other teams, but also an image of the Asiatic cheetah emblazoned across the front. Allowing such an image is a radical departure for FIFA: its rules clearly stipulate that only country insignias and manufacturers’ logos can appear on jerseys. But it’s an even greater departure for Iran, whose top environment official requested this rare exception in a face-to-face meeting with FIFA's head last year. Little more than a decade ago, few Iranians knew they were stewards of the last remaining Asiatic cheetahs on earth. Now, many hope the cheetahs’ international debut at the World Cup will raise global awareness and help them save their remnant population.
Centuries ago, Asiatic cheetahs roamed across much of the Middle East and into eastern India. Medieval royalty throughout the region often captured and trained cheetahs as hunting partners, even carrying them on horseback to hunting grounds. But somewhere along the way the hunters became the hunted. The last three cheetahs in India were shot by a Maharajah in 1947 when he spotted them in the beams of his car headlights. A growing human population and its livestock have crowded out Asiatic cheetahs in most countries, overgrazed the landscape, depleted their prey and often killed them on sight. By the 1990s, scientists estimated that Asiatic cheetahs were extinct in most of their former range and that fewer than 50 remained in Iran, holding out in the arid deserts in the eastern half of the country.
(This video of a mother and four adolescent cubs was taken in Iran's Touran Biosphere Reserve. Video courtesy of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation.)
By then, most Iranians had forgotten their ancient association with the fastest land animal on earth, and even fewer understood its habits. In 1994, in what would become a modern wildlife legend, villagers in the Bafq region of central Iran attacked a mother and her three cubs, fearing for their livestock and their families. But cheetahs rarely, if ever, kill livestock, instead chasing down Jebeer gazelles, Persian antelope and wild Urial sheep for food. Only one of the cubs survived the attack. That cub was transferred to the Pardisan Zoo in Tehran, where she lived for years in captivity as Marita and inspired a new generation of Iranian conservationists.
In fact, Marita changed Mohammad Farhadinia's life. As a 14-year-old student in 1996, Farhadinia and two classmates met Marita on a school trip and decided they should do something to help Iran’s cheetahs. When they graduated from high school in 2001, they formed a non-governmental organization (NGO) called the Iranian Cheetah Society (ICS) to study the problem. "We found that people killed cheetahs because they didn’t understand them," says Farhadinia now. "They confused them with wolves – wolves that were attacking their livestock." ICS set out to change that. After three years, Farhadinia made an even greater commitment to Iran’s cheetahs: he switched his university studies from medicine to wildlife science. "My brain was with humans, but my heart was with the cheetahs," he says. "I decided that I had to go with the cheetahs."
“My brain was with humans, but my heart was with the cheetahs. I decided that I had to go with the cheetahs.”
Meanwhile, Iran’s Department of the Environment had enlisted help from the United Nations Development Programme to establish the Conservation of the Asiatic Cheetah Project (CACP) in 2001. As CACP grew, it partnered with international conservation groups such as the Wildlife Conservation Society and Panthera, hired and trained local game wardens, acquired needed equipment and strengthened habitat protections. It also recruited other Iranian NGOs and students throughout the country to join the fight.
Delaram Ashayeri was one of those students. A young biology major in Tehran at the time, she had never heard of the Asiatic cheetah and was wondering what she could do with her degree when she graduated. After learning about CACP from a classmate, she found herself working with the Iranian NGO Plan for the Land Society developing a wildlife ecotourism project in the village of Qale Bala to generate local support for conservation. She’s now a project manager with the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, where her work has included installing camera traps to count cheetahs and talking with herders about ways of minimising human-cheetah conflict. Her organization and other partners run cheetah workshops to educate school kids and others about cheetah behavior, and hold cheetah festivals to help communities understand and appreciate their cheetah population. Groups such as the Iranian Cheetah Society helped launch National Cheetah Day, now held every August 31st to commemorate the day Marita’s family was killed.
But nothing compares with the football jerseys: “Nowadays, everyone knows about the cheetah because of football,” Ashayeri says.
So far, CACP has achieved its goal of preventing the extinction of Asiatic cheetahs, and greater public awareness has reduced cheetah killings by rural villagers. But sustaining a viable population in the long term will take more than national pride. CACP census data confirm that the Asiatic subspecies is genetically distinct from African cheetahs and that only 50 to 70 individuals remain – too few for the subspecies to persist over the long term. Panthera president Luke Hunter believes that increasing the population to 200 cheetahs within ten years is an attainable, if optimistic, goal.
International sanctions and development pressures make that recovery tricky. Economic hardship triggered by sanctions has spawned commercial poaching rings that deplete cheetah prey in some of the remotest reaches of their habitat. Conservationists say that Iran’s Department of the Environment needs more resources to pay, equip and train game wardens. And despite a licence issued last year by the US Treasury Department allowing American NGOs to support wildlife conservation in Iran, CACP’s international partners still find it difficult to transfer funds and equipment there.
The World Cup now provides conservationists a global platform to capture some of the world’s football frenzy and direct it towards this critically endangered species. But the question remains: can all the attention in the world save its last Asiatic cheetahs?