© WWF Russia / Olga Pereladova

The Asian cheetah previously had been a usual animal all over the plain areas of Central Asia, but it practically disappeared from the wild as a self-regulating population in 1950-1960. Still there were some data on existence of some single animals in the North-West of Turkmenistan till the beginning of 1980-th (Gorbunov, 1989, Zaletaev, 1984, etc).

Some small population still exists in Iran: there is some oral information on existence of more or less stable population of Asian cheetah in Iran in the deserts Deshte-lut and Deshte-kevir, where poaching was not developed thanks to impassability of the area for accessible for local people types of traffic. So, both main species of ungulates (food-resources of cheetah) and cheetah themselves had a chance for survival. So, according to different points of view, the estimated number of cheetah in Iran can be from 150 to 50 animals.

It is still possible to restore cheetah in the ecosystems of Central Asia. But for that it is necessary to start with special regime of protection of the areas of future restoration, restoration of the prey species' populations (ungulates first of all) and preparation of a group of cheetah for releasing in the wild. Turkmenistan can be the area of reintroduction, as it had been the last area in Central Asia, where cheetah survived - and it unites cheetah habitats in Central Asia and Iran .

WWF cat specialists suggested to return to the discussion of the cheetah reintroduction. It was suggested to have an expedition in order to see, whether reintroduction is possible, what areas are the best for that, what need to be done. Such an expedition was funded by WWF Netherlands in 2002, and leading cat experts from IUCN participated in it.

Conclusions of the survey are rather optimistic. Habitats suitable for cheetah are situated in the north-west of Turkmenistan (huge areas of Ustyurt), in the south-west (south-west of Kopetdag) and south-east (Badkhyz). They include territories both inside the existing protected areas, and outside them. The potential habitats of Ustyurt are the largest - but this area is the most difficult for reintroduction from the organizational point of view (there are few protected areas – and a system of new PAs need to be established; settlements are very few in the area and situated too far from each other; there are no roads, systems of communication, etc.).

The possibilities are more realistic in Badkhyz and south-west of Kopetdag: territory of potential reintroduction is limited, but an initial system of protected areas already exists, as well as initial infrastructure and populations of prey species. (Nevertheless improvement of existing ungulate populations and even reintroduction of some species are the objectives of the first phase of cheetah restoration).

A very important question of any species restoration project – sources of animals for reintroduction. There are two possible approaches for the restoration of cheetah as a species in the ecosystems (and fauna) of Central Asia: releasing of pure Asian cheetah (which live now only in Iran) or releasing of African cheetah. Recently the Iranian population is too small and difficult to access, so it is hardly possible to use a part of these animals for reintroduction. And there are practically no Asian cheetah anywhere in captivity. African cheetah are numerous both in the wild and in captivity, there are groups which can be easily used for releasing. But Asian and African cheetah are considered to be different subspecies – although the phenotype is very similar. Their difference or similarity could be checked by genetic studies - but such a research is questionable as well, as hardly any pure Asiatic cheetah are now accessible for such an investigation. It is obvious, that any proposal on the releasing of African cheetah in Central Asia would demand special discussions, and special decision of the leading international experts. But we should always remember that in reality we face a dilemma - either to loose cheetah as a species in the ecosystems of Central Asia, or to restore it using animals belonging to African subspecies.