Capturing the Asiatic Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) in Iran

I was pleased to read about recent efforts by the Wildlife Conservation Society to study Asiatic cheetahs in the wild:

Article Link: Biologist Keeps Track of Iran's Rare Cheetahs

These cats have received very little attention, not because of a lack of interest but because both their natural and political environments make research difficult.

I am concerned though about the foot-hold traps. I understand that the trap itself does not harm the cheetah, but I've seen even tame animals harm themselves while trying to escape from confinement. Its no stretch to imagine a cheetah becoming panicked and causing accidental injury while trying to get its leg out of a foot-hold trap.

I will ask Dr. Hunter for a comment. If I receive a response then I'll post it here.

April 2, 2007


Response from Luke Hunter, April 3, 2007

Asiatic Cheetah in Leghold Trap
Cheetah in foothold trap shortly before being darted. You can see the spring in the lower right of the photo.

This is a very reasonable question, and one which we as biologists ask ourselves every time we propose to capture a wild animal. Any time you capture a wild animal, there is always a small chance that injury or even death occurs, regardless of the method. But I think it is important for your readers to realize that most biologists spend an enormous amount of time and care in planning projects and safe-guarding against this possibility. Of course, biologists are human and some are more careful than others, so accidents can occur. BUT, it is a mistake to believe that we don’t care for the animals we study. We devote our lives to ensuring their conservation and, in the great majority of cases, we take the responsibility of capturing and handling them extremely seriously.

To capture cheetahs in Iran, we cannot rely on the methods that researchers use in the parks of Southern and East Africa, where it is often possible to simply drive up to ‘vehicle-friendly’ cheetahs and dart them from the car. Iranian cheetahs are extremely rare and shy; they avoid people and are impossible to approach. Equally, I do not like cage-traps which are often used by cattle farmers to capture cheetahs in places like Namibia, because there is a risk that a cheetah injures itself; for example, cheetahs can break their canine teeth on the cage, which can be extremely serious if it becomes infected. And in the worst case, there are a handful of occasions of cheetahs killing themselves in cage-traps by breaking their necks in their attempts to escape.

The ‘foothold traps’ we use are actually custom-made, lightweight foot-snares with a number of features to limit the chance that a cheetah could injure itself. Briefly, the way it works is that the animal steps into the snare which is concealed under a thin layer of sand or soil- nothing of the trap is visible when it’s set. Stepping into the loop triggers a spring-loaded arm which draws the snare closed around the animal’s paw. The snare is fitted with a small lock that prevents the loop from closing too tightly on the cheetah’s paw- just enough to hold the animal firmly but not so tightly as to cause injury. Additionally, the snare is anchored with a large spring, similar to the spring on a garage door; if the cheetah takes fright and bolts as it’s captured, the spring acts to absorb the shock so that the cheetah is not pulled to a stop too abruptly.

As well as these safeguards, each snare is fitted with a radio-transmitter which lets us know when it’s triggered. We monitor every snare with a radio receiver from a distance so that we can respond as soon as the signal indicates a ‘capture’ (in Iran, this is more often a trap being triggered by large Indian porcupines snuffling around the set and setting them off.) It means that the cheetah is rarely in the snare for more than 1-2 hours (the country is very rugged and it can take us that long to get to the snare on foot). By way of comparison, the same method has often been used for pumas in the US and for lions in East Africa, where some studies report traps being checked once every 12-24 hours. I believe that limiting the duration of time that the animal spends in the snare is extremely important and we work very hard to ensure that, including posting watches around the clock to monitor the snare transmitters.

This field season in Iran, we captured two cheetahs and one Persian leopard. In each case, they were completely unharmed by the capture process; our team always includes wildlife vets and we monitor their vital signs during sedation to make sure they are fine. Additionally, once they have recovered from the sedation and have moved away, we monitor them continuously from a distance by their radio collars to ensure that their behavior and movements are normal. In the case of the two cheetahs we captured, they were together the next morning (we think they are a coalition, probably brothers) and stayed in the same valley for two weeks after the captures, moving around as normal. Doubtless, the capture process is traumatic, as it would be to any wild animal, but everything about their response indicates a minimal effect. To give your readers a sense of this, I’ve included a photo of one of the cheetahs in a snare, shortly before being darted. This is typical; the cheetah isn’t exactly happy but it is calm and unhurt- not thrashing around or struggling violently, as many people might assume. You can see the spring in the lower right of the photo.

As a final point, you might ask “why is it even necessary to radio-collar animals?” When planning a project, the most important factor in my decision to use collars is whether they are required for ensuring the conservation of the species. In many cases, it is not; for example, if the most important activity is to immediately reduce the numbers of animals being killed by people, it might not require radio-collars to achieve. In the case of the Asiatic cheetahs, we know so little about them that the data from the collars will be essential in properly planning their conservation. We know nothing about the size of areas that Asiatic cheetahs require, where they breed and raise their cubs, the corridors they use to move between protected areas and so on. Without this information, we cannot help the Iranian government in their efforts to protect cheetah habitat and set aside meaningful parks and reserves, a goal to which the Iranians are very dedicated. I have seen, on many occasions, what happens to conservation planning in the absence of such information; the places that are protected are the ones that no-one wants, or are politically least difficult to protect. But, if as I suspect, the conservation of the cheetah in Iran hinges on protecting certain landscapes that are also sought after by people (for example, to graze livestock, to mine for minerals or to put the next highway!), then we need to be able to demonstrate with hard science how that will impact the cheetahs. Without that, we don’t have a chance.

Luke Hunter, PhD

Wildlife Conservation Society.

Great Cats Program

2300 Southern Blvd.

Bronx, NY 10460, USA.

www.savingwildplaces.org

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