ALEX CHADWICK, host:
Back now with DAY TO DAY. The Wildlife Conservation Society, WCS, based in New York, is trying to save a creature that lives in Iran.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
It's extremely rare, so it's hard to find.
CHADWICK: It's very fast, so it's hard to catch.
BRAND: And we're barely speaking to Iran, more difficulty.
CHADWICK: Nonetheless, the head of WCS' Great Cats Program, Luke Hunter, has managed for the first time to put a radio collar on an Asiatic cheetah, one of just dozens still surviving. He is our latest National Geographic Radio Expeditions interview.
Mr. LUKE HUNTER (Great Cats Program, Wildlife Conservation Society): Most people do think of the cheetah as pretty exclusively African, but the species used to occur all through the Arabian peninsula and much of Central Asia, as far east as India. And now in Asia the cheetah only occurs in Iran, where there's this tiny population left of, we estimate, perhaps 60 to 100 animals.
CHADWICK: So they're very rare, and we know that the cheetah is the fastest creature on Earth. How do you go about catching such a thing?
Mr. HUNTER: Yeah, it's quite a challenge there because I must tell you it's the most extraordinary habitat. It's basically open rock desert with these incredible sheer mountains popping up out of the middle of the desert, and the valleys through these mountains are the areas these cheetahs seem to prefer. So we targeted those areas for this capture effort, and the way we capture them - you know, they're incredibly shy, so you do have to catch them with traps. And we use a very safe, very ingenious method.
It's with a spring-loaded, soft-catch foot snare, and the art is placing it in an area where you think the cheetah will walk. And the spring triggers and the snare grabs the animal by the leg. You know, there's no injury to the animal. It holds the animal securely but quite gently, and that enables us to approach the animal to sedate them as normal for the whole process for fitting the radio collars.
CHADWICK: What has happened to the cheetah in Iran? Why is it that the numbers so low?
Mr. HUNTER: We don't know very well because they've never been intensively monitored, but I think there are two important elements. One was they probably never reached the high densities that cheetahs on the open woodland savannahs in Africa can reach, so they're probably naturally quite rare.
But then the other key issue, I think, was the Iranian Revolution in 1978, 1979, which removed all the protections for the areas in which the cheetahs lived, and that meant a proliferation of uncontrolled hunting in those areas both on cheetahs but perhaps more importantly on their prey species. So the really critical thing I think facing the cheetahs in Iran today is that there has been massive over-hunting of their prey species.
CHADWICK: And what is your plan now that the collars are on these animals? What are you going to try to do?
Mr. HUNTER: The plan with these collars is it will give us very fine-scale data which enables us to answer the sorts of questions like what areas do we need to make sure we're conserving and setting aside for posterity to make sure that cheetah populations can flourish, which are the most important areas in the environment to cheetahs.
CHADWICK: I gather there is a changed attitude on the part of the government in Iran. Conservation of wildlife matters more now perhaps than it did perhaps when the revolution took place. But still, you represent an American institution. How is it for you dealing with the government of Iran?
Mr. HUNTER: Alex, it's actually very good. It's very productive. And you're absolutely right about the Iranians being serious about conservation now; they're proud of the fact that Iran is the only country which has managed to hang on to the Asiatic cheetahs.
It is, of course, difficult with the current political climate in some ways. So for example during my last trip, the Iranian government was not permitting American nationals into the country to work with me. So my entire team were actually not Americans. And it's just fortuitous that I happen to be Australian, so I was let in.
But on the ground the cooperation with the government is terrific, and I think they're terrifically excited about this new project because it's not only the first time that, you know, radio collars have been put on Asiatic cheetahs, but the first time pretty much since the revolution that these kinds of intensive research projects have happened in Iran. Which is, I think, a real change for the better in Iran so that this will be available for future students and future generations to be able to have the same access to things that we take for granted when we do these conservation projects around the world.
CHADWICK: Luke Hunter is the head of the Great Cats Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society. Luke Hunter, thank you.
Mr. HUNTER: Thank you very much, Alex.