Data on Iranian Cheetah Population Curtailed by Wildlife Camera Restrictions

By Azadeh Karimi

Information on the population of the Asiatic cheetah in Iran is incomplete because of severe restrictions on the number of camera traps that can be used in wildlife sanctuaries, according to Morteza Eslami, a founding member of the Iranian Cheetah Society (ICS), a non-government and non-profit organization.

“We do not know the precise number of cheetahs because of the limited number of wildlife cameras we have unfortunately been allowed to place in sanctuaries in the last two years,” Mr. Eslami explained in a report by ISNA, the Iranian Students’ News Agency. “In previous years, we could install trail cameras in the provinces of Yazd, Semnan, and Northern Khorasan to collect information on the cheetah population. In the last two years, however, we have only installed wildlife cameras in Miyandasht [rural district, in the northeastern province of South Khorasan].”

“We have raised this issue with the Department of Environment many times,” Eslami noted. “The department is trying to address the problem, so we could conduct our studies of the Asiatic cheetah better. According to wildlife experts and rangers, less than 30 cheetahs have been tagged [with GPS tracking collars] so far. To determine the exact number of Asiatic cheetahs, we should tag the entire population. It is, therefore, vital for us to restart the project as soon as possible.”

“Wildlife field researchers and rangers have, unfortunately, not seen any female cheetah with cubs since late March. We also do not know the male to female ratio of the population,” Eslami added. “Besides protecting cheetahs in the wild, we must also develop a robust semi-captivity breeding program. Captive breeding of carnivores does not increase their population in the wild and sanctuaries. However, we must do our utmost to ensure their survival. Saving cheetahs is a race against time because their population has dwindled significantly, bringing them to the brink of extinction.”

“Livestock guard dogs kill many cheetahs. To protect the Asiatic cheetah against dog attacks, the [government] must buy back grazing licenses issued to livestock farmers which allow their animals to enter sanctuaries,” Eslami said. “Some progress has been made in the past couple of years. However, there are many such licenses, so the effort to buy back those permits in Khar Turan National Park [in the northern province of Semnan] and Miyandasht should continue.”

“The central province of Yazd used to be the most hospitable habitat for the Asiatic cheetah. However, mining, roadworks, and neglect have severely reduced the cheetah population in recent years,” a report by the Islamic Republic Broadcasting (IRIB) local affiliate TV said. “We must do our utmost to revive the cheetah population in the province through conservation efforts.”

The restriction on the use of wildlife cameras could have resulted from the unfounded claim by the authorities that they were used in espionage operations.

In January 2018, agents from of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Intelligence Organization arrested seven members of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF), a non-profit organization, on charges of espionage.

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Those arrested included Niloufar Bayani, the manager of the Conservation of the Asiatic cheetah Project (CACP) and a former adviser to the UN Environment Program; Kavus Seyyed Emami, an Iranian-Canadian sociologist; Hooman Jokar, the director of CACP; Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian-American businessman; Taher Ghadirian, Amirhossein Khaleghi Hamidi, and Sam Rajabi.

The IRGC arrested another environmentalist, Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, a month later. According to the authorities, Mr. Emami, a sociologist and faculty member at Imam Sadegh University, killed himself at Tehran’s Evin prison a day after his arrest.

Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi, the Tehran Prosecutor, confirmed on February 10 that seven conservationists had been arrested on charges of espionage. “These individuals’ true mission was to collect sensitive strategic information about the country while working ostensibly as wildlife conservationists and environmentalists. They have all been arrested following a successful intelligence operation.”

The arrest and continued imprisonment of the environmentalists on trumped-up charges have attracted the attention of conservationists and human rights organizations around the world.

Hollywood actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio tweeted a message on April 10 praising Iranian conservationists working to protect the Asiatic cheetah and called for the release of the imprisoned environmentalists. The message included photographs of an Asiatic cheetah and field researches and rangers in a wildlife sanctuary.

“The best way to document endangered animals like the Asiatic cheetah which occurs only in Iran is to use camera traps,” DiCaprio said in the tweet. “Camera traps are not spy tools. Hooman Jokar and Amirhossein Khaleghi Hamidi worked with the government and not against it, and local rangers worked with them in the fields. They were not operating on their own. They are patriots dedicated to saving one of Iran’s most powerful natural symbols from extinction.”

“It is a bitter irony that the trial of Hooman Jokar, the director of Conservation of the Asiatic cheetah Project, should coincide with the International Cheetah Day,” a tweet by @fatemebabakhani on August 3 said. “He has been working hard as a conservationist for the past 20 years. How can someone like Hooman Jokar be a spy?”

The tweet contained an undated video clip showing Mr. Jokar speaking about an event he experienced as a young university student which motivated him to become a wildlife conservationist and get involve in protecting the Asiatic cheetah.

[Translated from Persian by Fardine Hamidi]