Mongabay: Iran’s endangered cheetahs and imperiled conservationists

Commentary by Luke Hunter | Christine Breitenmoser | Urs Breitenmoser | Sarah Durant | Laurie Marker | Stephane Ostrowski | Christian Walzer on 8 March 2019

 

  • Eight Iranian wildlife conservationists have been imprisoned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps since January 2018, facing charges of espionage. All those in detention — Niloufar Bayani, Taher Ghadirian, Houman Jowkar, Sepideh Kashani, Amirhossein Khaleghi Hamidi, Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, Sam Radjabi and Morad Tahbaz — are among the most knowledgeable, experienced, and capable conservationists working in Iran.
  • All are accused of spying under the guise of conducting cheetah surveys by using camera traps to collect sensitive information. But camera-traps are an extremely poor tool for spying. They are indispensable for monitoring shy species like Asiatic cheetahs, but the cat must pass within the sensor’s very limited range — around 5-10 meters — to trigger the unit.
  • We hope that their body of excellent work is presented during the trials. We also hope that the Iranian authorities consider their profound contribution to conserving Iran’s magnificent natural heritage, and that these authorities agree with us that the future of the cheetah and of conservation in Iran relies on these very people being able to continue their vital work.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.
    Few people realize that Iran is home to cheetahs. Once found from the Arabian Peninsula to India, the Asiatic cheetah — genetically and ecologically distinct from its African counterpart — is now reduced to fewer than 50 individuals occupying Iran’s vast, arid central plateau.

This critically endangered population has been the focus of a sustained conservation effort led by the Iranian Department of Environment (DoE) since 2001. Among its many achievements, the ambitious program declared specially protected cheetah reserves and supplied the parks with guards, new vehicles, and other equipment to protect them.

The program also fostered a new era of cooperation between professional conservationists inside and outside Iran, united in their commitment to averting the cheetah’s extinction. The DoE enlisted members of Iran’s vibrant non-governmental sector to provide technical expertise and training, particularly in science-based surveys of cheetah populations. Surveys are essential to understanding where cheetahs live and move, how many remain, and whether they are breeding. Those surveys are also at the heart of a devastating case unfolding in the Iranian courts this month.

Clockwise from top right: Amirhossein Khaleghi Hamidi, Taher Ghadirian, Sam Radjabi, Niloufar Bayani, Morad Tahbaz, Houman Jowkar, Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, Sepideh Kashani. Photos courtesy of Luke Hunter.

Eight wildlife conservationists have been imprisoned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps since January 2018, facing charges of espionage. All those in detention — Niloufar Bayani, Taher Ghadirian, Houman Jowkar, Sepideh Kashani, Amirhossein Khaleghi Hamidi, Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, Sam Radjabi and Morad Tahbaz — are among the most knowledgeable, experienced, and capable conservationists working in Iran. A ninth NGO professional, Kavous Seyed Emami, was arrested in the January 2018 action that saw the group imprisoned; also a Canadian citizen, he died under mysterious circumstances while in custody.

All are accused of spying under the guise of conducting cheetah surveys by using camera traps to collect sensitive information. But camera-traps are an extremely poor tool for spying. Essentially a very simple camera with a sensor that detects motion, camera traps take photos of wildlife that pass directly in front of the lens. They are indispensable for monitoring shy species like Asiatic cheetahs, but the cat must pass within the sensor’s very limited range — around 5-10 meters — to trigger the unit. They cannot produce useful images of Iran’s military installations or other sensitive sites, as the prosecution claims. For decades, the use of camera traps has been a standard approach around the world for monitoring rare, low-density species, particularly large carnivores such as the cheetah.

Indeed, the accused conservationists performed first-rate cheetah surveys. Their work, together with that of many other Iranian scientists and NGO members working under the DoE’s aegis, confirmed that cheetahs are more widespread in Iran than initially supposed: they live in at least 18 protected areas, up from only five when the program was launched. Valuable data on cheetah reproduction and their movements between protected areas have also been gathered, helping to inform the government’s strategy for saving the species. The survey effort should stand out as one of the program’s most successful elements, a model of cooperation between Iranian civil society and the government, which always furnished the essential permissions and oversight. Critically, conservation in Iran simply does not happen without the state in the lead.

It is a tragic irony then that those people best qualified and most committed to conserving the cheetah are on trial as a result of their government-sanctioned conservation work.

Just as we, the authors of this piece, know them to be deeply professional and passionate conservationists, we are convinced of their innocence. We hope that their body of excellent work is presented in their defence. We also hope that the Iranian authorities consider their profound contribution to conserving Iran’s magnificent natural heritage, and that these authorities agree with us that the future of the cheetah and of conservation in Iran relies on these very people being able to continue their vital work.

Source: https://news.mongabay.com/2019/03/irans-endangered-cheetahs-and-imperiled-conservationists-commentary/

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