Recent work in the group of Pamela Burger of the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna challenges this view and shows that the cheetahs in Northern-East Africa and those in Asia differ markedly from the populations in Southern Africa. The results are published in the current issue of the journalMolecular Ecology and have profound and far-reaching implications for the conservation of the species.
Historically, cheetahs were widespread throughout Africa and much of Southwest Asia, ranging through Kazakhstan and the entire Indian peninsula. The present situation is very different and the remaining animals are concentrated in certain areas in southern and eastern Africa. Very few cheetahs now exist in the wild in Asia, where the species is confined to small areas in Iran. It has long been believed that cheetahs show relatively low levels of genetic variation, although previous studies have not examined the entire geographic range. Pauline Charruau and Pamela Burger of the Institute of Population Genetics at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna have collaborated with groups in a number of other countries -- Portugal, Germany, the United States, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, France and South Africa -- to investigate a large number of cheetah DNA samples. The researchers even included in their study DNA that they extracted from bones found in mediaeval sites in north-west Iran. By means of sophisticated statistical methods to compare the sequences of certain pieces of the DNA, the scientists were able to gain a far more complete picture of the range of diversity in the species.