When Iran’s football team takes to the field at this year’s World Cup competition in Brazil, it will sport on its jerseys not only its country’s insignia like all other teams, but also an image of the Asiatic cheetah emblazoned across the front. Allowing such an image is a radical departure for FIFA: its rules clearly stipulate that only country insignias and manufacturers’ logos can appear on jerseys. But it’s an even greater departure for Iran, whose top environment official requested this rare exception in a face-to-face meeting with FIFA’s head last year. Little more than a decade ago, few Iranians knew they were stewards of the last remaining Asiatic cheetahs on earth. Now, many hope the cheetahs’ international debut at the World Cup will raise global awareness and help them save their remnant population.
Centuries ago, Asiatic cheetahs roamed across much of the Middle East and into eastern India. Medieval royalty throughout the region often captured and trained cheetahs as hunting partners, even carrying them on horseback to hunting grounds. But somewhere along the way the hunters became the hunted. The last three cheetahs in India were shot by a Maharajah in 1947 when he spotted them in the beams of his car headlights. A growing human population and its livestock have crowded out Asiatic cheetahs in most countries, overgrazed the landscape, depleted their prey and often killed them on sight. By the 1990s, scientists estimated that Asiatic cheetahs were extinct in most of their former range and that fewer than 50 remained in Iran, holding out in the arid deserts in the eastern half of the country.