I am looking at these two sketches in my notebook, that a Turkmen horse breeder called Murat is drawing infront of me: one is of a large cat with big spots and short legs, the other one is of a sleek cat with a long tale. One is a leopard. I look at the other sketch and for a minute I am thinking he is drawing an Akhal Teke, the descendant of the ancient Turkmen horse, the pride and “wings of the hearts” of the Turkmen people, known as the “fusion of snake, cheetah and eagle”. He presses his finger against it and says “ghepard”, which means cheetah in Russian, and adds “I saw it one late afternoon not far from Kopet Dag mountains, west of them…two years ago”.
It is my second visit to Turkmenistan, in most part to attend together with Kyrgyz businessnman and horse breeder Nourlan Mamyrov events to celebrate the pride and glory of Turkmenistan, the Akhal Teke horse or commonly known as the “Golden Horse”. Horses are part of my life. I learned to hold on to a horse’s mane before I learned how to walk. After a long stint as a professional dressage rider during my teenage years, today I mostly hold on to a horse’s mane to climb steep mountains to camera trap for snow leopards. Throughout my wildlife conservation life, passion and knowledge of horses has in societies where horses and good horsemanship are held in such high esteem, helped soften social and cultural boundaries, and develop common ground over contentious conservation and wildlife issues.
As I later watch Turkmen President, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, gently stroke his beautiful golden steed and whisper soft somethings in his ear, I wonder whether the shared love of the Akhal Teke, together with that of Turkmenistan’s environment and heritage, can become an opportunity to convince the President to take a key role in the conservation of the country’s golden wild felids, the Persian leopard and the Asiatic cheetah.
Turkmenistan is a country of rugged beauty, mystery and beautiful and welcoming people. In 2014, researchers Petra Kaczensky and John Linnell traveled to Badhyz State Nature Reserve in southern Turkmenistan and surrounding wildlife sanctuaries (Gyzyljar and Chemenabat) to assess the status, among others, of several important prey species for leopards and cheetah, the urial and goitered gazelle. They told of leopard tracks but reported that Asiatic cheetahs have not been seen in the reserve since the 1960’s (Breitenmoser 2002).
But cheetahs were spotted close to the border on the Iranian side, south east of the Kopet Dag mountains. A small and highly endangered population of Asiatic cheetah persists in Iran. In 2001, the Iranian Department of Environment, with support from the United Nations Development Programme, started a long-term project entitled “Conservation of the Asiatic Cheetah Project” (CACP), designating five landscapes as specially protected cheetah reserves (https://voices.nationalgeographic.org/2012/10/25/finding-the-last-cheetahs-of-iran/).
The status of the Asiatic cheetah in Iran is quite dire, as in the past 15 years, 48 cheetahs are believed to have died, seven from natural causes, 21 at the hands of farmers, 15 in car accidents and five as a result of hunting (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/30/two-female-asiatic-cheetahs-remain-in-wild-in-iran-say-conservationists). Persian Leopards are faring better. Joining the efforts of the Iranian government in the conservation of these two species are three NGOs and their incredibly dedicated conservationists: the Iranian Cheetah Society (IRS), Project Future4Leopards and the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF).
In 2016, Kaveh, one of the Persian leopards collared by Mohamed Farhidinia of Future4Leopards crossed from Tandoureh National Park in the Kopet Dag mountains across into Turkmenistan and came very close to Asghabat, the capital of Turkmenistan and has likely settled there.
But could cheetah have crossed into Turkmenistan from Iran? Amirhossein Khaleghi of the PWHF writes that its almost more than couple of decades that there is no hard evidence of cheetah on the Iran-Turkmenistan border but around 3 years ago based on a hunter report a survey was done indicating the possibility of cheetah presence in that area. And around that time the IRS documented a large family of Asiatic cheetahs in Miandasht Wildlife Refuge in north-eastern Iran near the border with Turkmenistan, some 150 km from the Turkmen border. Similarly the PWHF team documented a group of cheetah in Touran Biosphere Reserve, west of Miandasht. One cheetah was also spotted in Golestan National Park after 40 years.
While the opportunity to make a tangible difference in Turkmenistan to conserve Persian leopards is real given documented crossings between Iran and Turkmenistan as well documented presence in the Kopet Dag mountains and the Badhyz reserve in the south eastern part of the country, there is hope that perhaps there is still a slim chance to give the Asiatic cheetah the opportunity to reoccupy historic range. If the sightings of locals like Murat can be corroborated then there is no time to lose.
My proposition: to run a transect from Asghabat to south of the Haserdag reserve along the Iranian border. “He has a unique body conformation. A long back, shoulders high, chest deep, tall and narrow chest, long legs and slender with defined tendons, muscles strong without being heavy. The Akhal Teke horse seems reminiscent of the most pungent animal, the cheetah. Flexibility and smoothness particularly high neck movements and suggest the cobra snake ready to attack. Majesty and pride in gallop movement to create the illusion of an eagle embodied in a stallion”. I see no better way then doing so on the back of an Akhal Teke. And perhaps Turkmen President Berdimuhamedow may want to lead this expedition.