Asiatic cheetahs forced to hunt livestock
Asiatic cheetahs, one of the world's most endangered animals, are forced to eat livestock in areas where their wild prey is in decline, a study has found.
An international team of scientists working in Iran investigated what the animals ate in places where game numbers had been reduced by poachers.
They found the cats had turned to hunting domestic animals because they could not survive on smaller prey.
Safeguarding the cats needs a clamp down on poaching, the scientists found.
The study is published in the Journal of Arid Environments and addresses a conflict that emerged among Iranian conservationists over the Asiatic cheetah, a subspecies of the cheetah that is "critically endangered" according to the IUCN's Red List.
It had been suggested that the Asiatic cheetah might survive by eating more rodents and hares in areas where medium-sized ungulates had declined.
But this study suggests that is not true.
The scientists completed the investigation over five years in two reserves in north-east Iran, near the Turkmenistan border.
The areas had a depleted population of wild ungulates such as gazelle, wild sheep and goats.
By sampling the cheetahs' scat they gained an insight into what the animals were eating in those areas.
Results suggest that while hares and rodents formed part of the cats' diet, they were not a significant source of nutrition.
The cheetahs mainly fed on medium-sized herbivores, resorting to livestock if necessary, according to the study.
"The hare or the rabbit... [are] a very important part of their diet. But that's such a hard thing to catch for so little that it's not sustainable," explained Dr Laurie Marker, founder and executive director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia, who collaborated on the Iranian study.
"We need to have the small and medium-sized antelope," she said.
The scientists' study reported that local herders seemed unaware of the Asiatic cheetah's "depredation of their stock", perhaps because the cats are so rare.
But in order to avoid future conflict with local communities, the scientists recommended that anti-poaching regulations be enforced and that other activities in the reserves are adapted to the needs of the Asiatic cheetah.
"After the revolution the game reserves, which were sacrosanct before, were opened up to the communities," said Dr Marker.
"[The cheetahs] are in game reserves and in the game reserves there's been a large influx of herders bringing their livestock, which have reduced the land space for where the prey can be and so the prey gets pushed out."
By enforcing no-grazing zones, the Asiatic cheetah would stand a better chance of accessing the wild ungulates it needs, according to the study.
The Asiatic cheetah in Iran has been compared to the panda in China, or the tiger in India, as a symbol for wildlife conservation.
Some experts thought the subspecies numbered around 200 individuals in the 1970s but Dr Marker said the current estimate is that there are only 70 Asiatic cheetahs left in the wild, all of them in Iran.