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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 August 2005, 12:37 GMT 13:37 UK
Asiatic cheetahs caught on camera
The Asiatic cheetah lives on the edge (Image: I.R.Iran DOE/CACP/WCS/UNDP-GEF)

It's amazing what a remote camera will pick up.

This remarkable image of Asiatic cheetahs was captured by automatic equipment in an isolated region of Iran's Dar-e Anjir Wildlife Refuge.

The picture shows mum and her four youngsters resting in the shade of a tree.

It is quite a catch as the big cat is now extremely rare.

Once ranging from the Red Sea to India, the Asiatic cheetah today numbers fewer than 60 animals on the entire Asian continent, mostly on Iran's arid central plateau.

"As a species the cheetah is still in dire straits in Iran, so it is extremely encouraging to see an apparently healthy family in their native habitat," said Dr Peter Zahler, from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which has been working with Iranian biologists to survey the cats since 2001.

"Images like these give hope to conservationists that there is still time to save these magnificent animals."

Automatic cameras have become a useful conservation tool (Image: I.R.Iran DOE/CACP/WCS/UNDP-GEF)

Initiated by a major grant and ongoing support from the United Nations Development Programme's Global Environment Facility, WCS began its collaboration with Iranian scientists by surveying five protected areas where cheetahs were still thought to exist.

The group found a variety of suitable habitats, but also discovered that prey species, such as jebeer gazelle and urial sheep, were scarce. The latest photographs hint at the gradual recovery of prey populations.

"Cheetahs in Iran live on a knife-edge in very marginal habitat," said Dr Luke Hunter, coordinator of WCS's Global Carnivore Program.

"The fact that this female has managed to raise four cubs to six months of age is extremely encouraging.

"Hopefully, this indicates there are areas where the cheetah's prey species are coming back, a goal the Iranian Department of Environment and UNDP has been working very hard to achieve."

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