Wildlife experts hailed the success of U.N.-backed initiative to protect Asiatic cheetahs from extinction, despite sanctions imposed by the west making funds and equipment hard to obtain, reported the Guardian on Tuesday.

The Asiatic cheetahs are classified as extinct around the world except for in Iran, where they are critically endangered. In an unusual sighting, four wildlife experts from the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF) witnessed a group of five Asiatic Cheetahs as the environmentalists were coming back from a trip to Iran’s Turan national park, home to some of the largest Asiatic cheetah populations in the world.

“They could not believe what they were seeing,” Delaram Ashayeri, project manager at PWHF, told the Guardian. “They took out their camera and filmed it.” The picture showing the five cheetahs, with four of them are looking directly into the camera, has since been shared repeatedly by Iran’s huge online community.

The sighting comes after a decade-long initiative in Iran called the Conservation of Asiatic Cheetah Project (CACP), a project launched between Iran’s department of environment and U.N. development program to protect the cheetahs from extinction and raise awareness in local communities in proximity to the cheetah’s habitats.

“In the past year or so that we closely monitored Turan, we never spotted a family, especially female cheetahs with cubs,” Ashayeri said. “It shows Asiatic cheetahs are surviving, breeding cubs are managing to continue life. It’s good news against a barrage of bad news about these animals.”

So far, CACP, with help from other NGOs, including the PWHF and Iranian Cheetah Society (ICS), has developed 14 reserve areas for the critically endangered animals in Yazd, Semnan and Kerman.

See also  Will the world’s fastest Asiatic cheetah outrun extinction?

Morteza Eslami, head of ICS, says their efforts still face many challenges due to sanctions on Iran.

“Unfortunately, due to sanctions, we have not been able to reach international funds,” Eslami told the Guardian. “We are an NGO, we are independent of the government but due to sanctions we had serious difficulties in obtaining camera traps, for example. It is not possible to directly buy them and we have to go through a number of intermediaries and that means that we have to pay more to get our hands on them. Also, we have banking restrictions, making it difficult for us to pay for these camera traps.”

Before the efforts to protect the Asiatic cheetahs began, an average of 1.5 cheetahs were killed in Yazd every year, Eslami said, whereas this number has lowered to almost zero.

Recently released research by the ICS claimed there are currently 40 to 70 cheetahs in Iran.