Asiatic Cheetah or Asian Cheetah is one of the rarest cat species on the planet with a mere fifty to sixty individuals remaining in the wild. Once found in thousands from Arabian peninsula to India, it is now seen only in fragmented locations in central Iran. Also called Indian Cheetah it is now extinct in India. The name Cheetah is in fact a derivation from the Sanskrit (ancient language of India) word Chitraka, meaning 'the spotted one'.
The fastest land mammal, Asiatic Cheetah, like other subspecies of this amazing big cat, is built for speed. A long and sleek body is balanced on slim, athletic legs with semi-retractable claws that enable the cat to maintain grip on ground in high speed pursuits. Weighing in the range of eighty to one hundred and fifty pounds, it is between four to five feet in length with a near two and a half feet tail that acts as a rudder to stabilize the Cheetah as it makes quick turns in hunts. Height is about two and a half feet. Fur color is tawny and hair are short and coarse. Black spots mark the length of the body. Head is small and eyes are high set. Dark tear like markings that run from the inside corners of eyes, across the side of nose to mouth are thought to protect the Cheetah's eyes from direct impact of sun's rays as it chases its prey in bright daylight.
Residing in the barren lands of Iran, Cheetah is a traditionally a daytime hunter. In Africa this is an adaptation to avoid conflict with other bigger predators like lions, hyenas and leopards that are active at night. Little is known about the behavior and habits of the Asian Cheetah, though it is known to prey upon gebeer and goitered gazelle, wild goat and urial sheep. Cheetahs have strong jaws and kill by the throat hold that suffocates the prey animal. It is estimated that if they come within two hundred yards of the prey by taking cover from bush and grass, avoiding notice, then they have a reasonable chance of success in making the kill. Unlike other big cats, Cheetahs can be tamed and were used for centuries by maharajahs in India to bring down gazelle, earning the title of 'hunting leopard'.
Acinonyx Jubatus Venaticus, the Asiatic Cheetah is currently recorded in desert and semi-arid shrubland in scattered regions in Iran. Some unconfirmed sightings have been made in the past in the Balochistan province of Pakistan, however there is no evidence to back them up. Cheetahs are to an extent migratory cats and often move around in search for prey. This is particularly true in case of females who don't hold as strongly to a territory as males.
Not much is known about the reproductive profile of Asiatic Cheetah. Mid winter is believed to be the peak breeding season for the cats even though they have been documented to mate year round. Litter size is reported to be between one to four cubs with two being the average. Independence is probably reached at eighteen months. Lifespan is up to twelve to fourteen years.
Cheetahs in general and Asian Cheetahs in particular are at the lowest point in their evolutionary history. A basic problem is their lack of genetic variability since they all seem to have evolved from a limited number of ancestors at one point in time several thousand years ago. This leads to a high mortality rate in cubs. The same problem is likely to have significant short and long term consequences for the Asiatic Cheetah which is under the significant threat of inbreeding. Desertification of their habitat, loss of prey, poaching and loss of habitat to agriculture and mining projects, are the main threats to this marvelous cat. There are conservation projects going on though. Authorities in Iran are reportedly taking interest in conservation of the big cat and collaborating with organizations like Wildlife Conservation Society and World Wildlife Fund to study and protect the feline. This enabled the successful collaring of the first Asiatic Cheetah last year, allowing the first opportunity to study the threatened cat in the wild that is currently classified as Critically Endangered.