Name: Khalatbari L

Biodeserts supervisor: Brito JC

Co-supervisor: Urs Breitenmoser (Institut für Virologie und Immunologie, Bern University); Bastian Egeter (CIBIO, University of Porto)

Title: Lasts of their kind? Biogeography, ecology and action plan for the conservation of the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah

Institution: University of Porto

Status: Completed



Global biodiversity is decreasing in such a fast rate that scientists have suggested that the sixth mass extinction has already arrived. World leaders have agreed over several conventions, strategic plans and summits, to halt or reduce the rate of biodiversity loss. Still, recent reports show that the achievements of the previous agreed goals were not fully successful. The main drivers of biodiversity loss are habitat destruction and fragmentation and climate change. Additionally, expansion of agriculture, grazing and hunting activities also play an important role in global change.
Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is a large carnivore threatened by global changes. It used to range across most of Asia and Africa, but it disappeared from 90% of the historical range. In Asia, cheetah was extirpated from 98% of the historical range and it is currently limited to the borders of Iran. Within the country it is under legal protection and conservation projects were deployed to protect it. Despite the conservation efforts made, still there is need for additional studies on cheetah’s ecology.
The main objective of this thesis is to better understand some aspects of the ecology of Asiatic cheetah and the threats to its survival in order to provide scientific base for defining effective conservation measures. I aimed to do so by answering the following questions: 1) What is the current status and distribution of the Asiatic cheetah and what are the specific regional threats? 2) How was the distribution in the previous century and how have suitable habitats changed over time? 3) What are the main drivers of habitat selection and how have they changed over time? 4) What are cheetahs feeding on and are there regional differences in diet composition? 5) What are the levels of genetic diversity and how are populations spatially structured, and what are the main drivers of population structure? 6) Which measures should be taken for the efficient conservation of the species? 7) What important cautions should be taken care of for implementing possible conservation measures? 8) What national and international obstacles can hamper the conservation of cheetahs in practice, and how can they be overcome?
Initially, I have reviewed the historical and current status, population trends, and threats to cheetah survival in Iran, and present conservation actions recommended by Iranian experts. Between 2015 and 2017, 26 different individuals were recorded in protected areas based on camera-trapping and direct observation. The northern Subpopulation is the only one with reproduction evidence. No reproduction has been observed in the Southern Subpopulation since 2013, suggesting that it is decreasing in size and range. No cheetahs were recorded in the western Subpopulation since 2013. Despite the conservation efforts in the last years, the conservation status in Iran remains Critically Endangered. Urgent measures are needed to protect the last remaining individuals. The combined engagement and contribution of national and international partners will be critical for the success of these interventions.
To quantify temporal changes in ecological requirements and availability of suitable areas for cheetah, and understanding important drivers for shaping its distribution, I have used ecological models for historical and contemporary time-periods, based on distinct observational datasets and ecogeographical variables, including climate, anthromes and prey availability of each time-period. Distance to the prey Chinkara (Gazella bennettii) was the most important factor related to the occurrence of cheetahs in the historical period, while in the contemporary period it was replaced by maximum temperature of the warmest month. Predicted areas of high suitability decreased 72% from the historical to the contemporary period, including losses inside some protected areas. Results suggest that the fundamental niche of cheetah has not changed but the realized niche has changed over time, and changes in the realized niche are likely related to the depletion of cheetah’s main prey, temperature variation, and landscape transformations. Conservation measures should improve the protection for gazelle species (prey) and wildlands (habitat), especially in temperate areas.
For assessing cheetah diet composition, I have used putative cheetah scats and metabarcoding techniques. Cheetahs primarily predate on mouflon and other common prey items were ibex, cape hare and goitered gazelle. Despite their high availability, small livestock was never detected in the samples analysed. Goitered gazelles were only detected in an area where the habitat is mainly flatlands. In hilly areas, mouflon was the most frequent prey item taken. Ibex was typically taken in rugged terrain, but mouflon was still the most frequently consumed item in these landscapes. High consumption of mouflon in comparison to goitered gazelle confirms previous studies, supports that cheetahs have undergone a severe decline in size and range, and suggests that human pressures on lowland habitats have forced cheetahs to occupy suboptimal habitats where gazelles are less abundant. The protection of flatlands and the removal of livestock from these habitats are emphasised as important conservation measures.
I have used molecular markers to estimate genetic diversity, relatedness between individuals, minimum effective population size and gene flow, and to assess structure of the fragmented subpopulations. Putative corridors connecting the subpopulations were predicted according to connectivity models based in resistance variables. The estimated effective population size is extremely low (Ne=11.6), the population is structured into Northern and Southern Subpopulations, with low diversity. Several corridors potentially connecting two subpopulations were identified. Several traces of gene flow and movement of individuals were observed suggesting that the identified corridors are functional. Relatedness between individuals can be best explained by isolation by distance. The resistance model that includes slope and natural land-cover variables was best related with genetic relatedness, but population structure is mostly driven by isolation by distance. The very low effective population size and diversity estimated suggests that urgent solutions for increasing the diversity of the Asiatic population should be considered to prevent extinction.
I have also reported the risks that can be imposed to the conservation of cheetah from promoting ex situ management. I argue that all variables that may affect captive programmes should be carefully considered and also that feasibility studies should be conducted before endorsing ex situ management for the conservation planning of any threatened species. I also emphasise on the necessity and importance of removing political obstacles from the conservation of imperilled biodiversity.
Finally, I have used the knowledge gathered in the thesis to develop a preliminary action plan that addresses the most important threats to the survival of cheetah in Iran. The main pillars of the plan are the safeguarding of key-habitats for cheetahs and their prey, the protection of corridors between key-habitats, the promotion of human-wildlife coexistence, the establishment of a monitoring system, and the potential reinforcement of the population with African individuals.
Altogether, this thesis confirms that the remaining cheetah individuals in Iran are truly the lasts of their kind and may indeed face imminent extinction. As such, we need to act now, and to act fast, to ensure the persistence of this unique jewel of biodiversity.