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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Zoo History: Cheetah Coursing

“Shaitan was a good-looking young cheetah with a very affectionate way about him: indeed, he was more like a great dog than a cat.  When we was still he looked a gawky beast, but potentially beautiful; it was only when he got into action that one realised his surpassing perfection: all his clumsiness disappeared: his legs, which, when he was still, seemed too long for his slender body, were hardly visible when he was at the height of his speed.  During the brief space of his utmost endeavour, there was nothing of four legs that Shaitan could not catch.”
~ Patrick O’Brian, Hussein: an Entertainment 

Hunting, for sustenance or for sport, is perhaps the oldest category of human-animal interactions.  It predates every human society and has been known in virtually all cultures and in all classes.  Whereas peasants often hunted on a small scale, setting snares and taking a little meat for their table whenever they could, the most powerful and prestigious members of society often organized elaborate, massive hunts in search of big game.  Hunting came to signify more than a means of acquiring protein for one’s family; it became an exhibition of man’s dominion over the natural world.  Man eventually began to further this dominion when he domesticated the first animal – the wolf – and incorporated it into the hunt as his new partner, the domestic dog.  Over the centuries, he came to make use of several other animals as hunting partners, including falcons, hawks, and ferrets.  Of all these hunting partners, the most valuable, the most prized, and the most surprising was the cheetah.
It is uncertain as to exactly when and where the practice of cheetah coursing (the name given to the use of trained cheetahs for the hunt) began; what is certain is that humans have been taming the spotted, speedy cats for thousands of years. Unlike dogs or cats, cheetahs underwent no physiological change as a result of being kept in captivity (virtually all coursing cheetahs were wild caught), so historical records and artistic representations are all that scholars have to pinpoint the origin of coursing. 
Images of a collared individual, apparently being brought as tribute to the pharaoh, appear on an Egyptian tomb from 1450 BC, while in the Caucasus, a silver vase found in a burial mound dating back to 2300 BC depicts collared cheetahs.  The Egyptians were famous for their penchant for keeping and taming wild animals, having experimented with the domestication of gazelles, hyenas, and other wild animals, so there is some basis to the theory that Egypt was the point of origin for cheetah coursing.  Some authorities believe that it arose in Arabia, where cheetah coursing and falconry were considered essential methods of capturing prey in the desert. Other scholars believe that cheetah coursing has its origins in Persia and that the Arabs only became familiar with it after their conquests took them into modern-day Iran.  There are records in Persian royal poetry of kings hunting with cheetahs as early as 400 AD; it is known that the sport was clearly established in Persia by 650 AD.  Seventh century tomb murals in China depict hunting with both cheetahs and caracals; the sport was later taken up by the Mongol conquerors. At any rate, the geographic locale most often associated with cheetah coursing is India.  
Most people, including several naturalists and other wildlife experts, consider the cheetah an exclusively African species, and it is true that the speedy cats are now found almost solely on the African continent.  Within historic times, however, there was also an Asiatic population, extending through Persia and India.  Today, all that is left of Asia’s cheetahs is a remnant population of 60-70 individuals dozens in Iran, compared to the thousands left in Africa.  This small population continues to suffer from habitat loss, depleted prey base, and persecution, and it remains uncertain as to how much longer it will survive.
Coursing cheetahs were also present in Europe, though not to the degree that they were in Asia.  The first animals began arriving in the thirteenth century in the courts of Europe, from Russia to England.  Virtually every noble household in Renaissance Italy and France had its own coursing cheetahs, while the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, an accomplished and expert falconer, had cheetahs marching in his wedding parade.  Charlemagne, William the Conquerer are other famous monarchs known to have practiced the sport.  Paintings and drawings of trained cheetahs, often depicted as collared and riding behind their masters on horseback, were produced throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.  “A cheetah trained for the hunt,” along with an Indian elephant and the customary gold and jewels, was among the gifts sent to Leo X to celebrate his coronation as Pope.  In 1764, a full 12 years before the cheetah was first formally described by western science, England’s Duke of Cumberland imported two “tigers” (based on paintings and descriptions, they were certainly cheetahs) from India for coursing, an event that was memorialized in George Stubbs’ painting A Cheetah with Two Indians.  Three cheetahs (and their six keepers) were gifted to the English King George III by the Tippoo Sultan in 1799.  Though popular and exotic, cheetahs were never considered to be an especially important component of the royal hunt in Europe, and were regarded more as curiosities and status symbols than hunting partners.

This demand for cheetahs became a large drain on the wild population.  So many animals were captured and removed from the gene pool (virtually none of whom would ever mate again) that it doubtlessly had an effect on the wild population.  The hunters, then, were removing adult cheetahs from the wild before they were capable of breeding, preventing cubs from being born in the wild and thereby replenishing the population.  Trapping was indiscriminate, with no regard for age and sex; the use of pits, however, trapping animals prior to the breeding season, suggests that animals that were in their reproductive prime were most likely to be caught.   The removal of females from the wild was doubtlessly also detrimental to the population.  Later during the year, after cubs were born, females would range for food, returning after a hunt to their dens in order to nurse their cubs.  If a female was trapped while out hunting one day, she would never return to her den and her cubs would starve.  If cubs were found by humans, they were often abandoned, being seen of little value for hunting; it seems unlikely that many (if any) of these cubs, deprived of their mothers’ care, were able to survive to adulthood
Many cheetahs were also removed from the wild to provide diplomatic gifts – several were exported to China, Mongolia, and even Western Europe, either for use in coursing (as was the case with the Duke of Cumberland) or for exhibition in royal menageries.  The trapping of India’s cheetahs remained at high levels into the twentieth century until there were none left.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the scarcity of Asiatic cheetahs was making itself felt in the courts of the Indian nobility.  Eventually, the remaining practitioners of the sport of coursing began to import cheetahs from Africa.  The importation of African animals was not only a sign of the drastic decline of the species in Asia, it also led to the belief – firmly entrenched in some naturalists – that the cheetah was never, in fact, native to Asia, and that all cheetahs used over the last several centuries had been imported from Africa. 
In modern times, someone will occasionally bring up the idea of reintroducing cheetahs back to India, using individuals from the Iranian population; similar plans have been proposed for using some of India’s few remaining Asian lions to reestablish a population in Iran.  No definitive plans have been announced, and considering the geopolitical tension that has surrounded Iran for the last several decades, it seems unlikely that any will be coming in the near future.  As for cheetah coursing, it seems, like the Asiatic cheetah itself, to have largely gone extinct.

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