Cheetah populations in North-East Africa, southern Africa and Asia differ markedly in their DNA, dispelling the long held belief that cheetahs have very low levels of genetic variation, a new study finds.
The new research has revealed that the cheetah populations in Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Djibouti differ significantly from their more southern counterparts in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Asian population of cheetahs are markedly distinct from their African relatives.
Very few cheetahs now exist in the wild in Asia, with an estimated population of less than 100 individuals confined to small areas of Iran.
The study, led by a team from the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, suggests it is likely that the African and Asian cheetah populations separated about 30,000 to 70,000 years ago, based on the results of detailed genetic analysis.
Urgent conservation action
The remarkable results of this study have profound and far-reaching implications for the conservation of the species.
The small population of Asiatic, or Iranian, cheetahs are now the last representatives of the Asiatic subspecies, and are so dissimilar from their African relatives that their conservation is an urgent priority.
Together with the United Nations Development Programme, the Iranian Department of the Environment has established a comprehensive programme (CACP) that makes conservation of the Asiatic cheetah a national priority. It is also working in collaboration with the leading wild cat conservation organisation, Panthera.
George Schaller, Vice President of Panthera says of the recent study,
“This important study clearly confirms that the cheetah habitat continues to fragment, and emphasizes the uniqueness of the Asiatic cheetah which is now critically endangered. Only Iran can now save it, and the country is fully dedicated to doing so as part of its natural heritage and that of the world.”
The director of the CACP in Iran, Alireza Jourabchian, hopes that these new findings will bring even greater attention to the plight of the Asiatic cheetah.
The findings of this new study are published in the journal Molecular Ecology.
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Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author