Final cheetah conservationists freed in Iran, but the big cat’s outlook remains grim


In December 2023, three staff members from the Iranian Cheetah Society crowded around a laptop, moved to tears by the sight of a mother cheetah and her four cubs, caught on a camera trap. Population estimates for the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) vary, but experts say fewer than 30 may remain. Once found throughout Central and Southwest Asia, as far east as India, today the Asiatic cheetah is found only in Iran, where conservation of the species has been hampered by complex geopolitical dynamics.

Cheetah conservationists finally freed

In January 2018, Iran arrested nine conservationists from the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF) and charged them with spying for states hostile to Iran. They were sentenced in 2019. The decision was upheld in 2020, amid allegations of flaws in the judicial process, including reports of torture and forced confessions. Last month, the final four Iranian scientists and conservationists linked to the PWHF walked free from Tehran’s Evin Prison, pardoned after serving six years and three months apiece.

Researchers Houman Jowkar, Sepideh Kashani, Taher Ghadirian and Niloufar Bayani were released on April 8 and 9. The organization’s co-founder, Morad Tahbaz, who also holds U.K. and U.S. citizenship, was released late last year as part of prisoner swap and sanctions waiver deal with the U.S., tied to the unfreezing of $6 billion in Iranian oil funds, earmarked for humanitarian purposes.

Three other PWHF-affiliated conservationists, Sam Rajabi, Amir-Hossein Khaleghi and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, were released between 2020 and 2023. However, the PWHF managing director, Kavous Seyed-Emami, died in prison shortly after his arrest. His death has not been independently investigated.

Founded in 2008, the now-defunct PWHF worked to save the Asiatic cheetah and other species native to Iran. The Tehran-based organization also worked in close coordination with Iran’s Department of Environment. It sought to raise awareness of the cheetah’s plight, including by organizing for the national football team to have the cheetah on its jerseys, and designating Aug. 31 National Cheetah Day.

The espionage allegations may have stemmed, in part, from the group’s relationship to big cat conservation group Panthera, according to media reports. In 2017, Panthera’s billionaire founder and chairman, Thomas Kaplan, went public with his support, including financial backing, for the hard-line U.S. lobby group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). UANI counts among its board former senior figures from U.S., U.K. and Israeli intelligence and military. Prior to their arrests, the PWHF staff had sent a letter voicing alarm at Kaplan’s UANI summit speech, worried that it put them at risk. The PWHF had received periodic technical and scientific advice from Panthera and had purchased camera traps from the organization.

Eight of the conservationists affiliated with the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation who were recently convicted of spying in Iran. Top row, from left: Niloufar Bayani, Taher Ghadirian, Houman Jowkar and Sepideh Kashani — all of whom were released in April. Bottom row, from left: Amirhossein Khaleghi Hamidi, Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, Sam Radjabi and Morad Tahbaz. Images courtesy of AnyHopeForNature.
Eight of the conservationists affiliated with the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation who were recently convicted of spying in Iran. Top row, from left: Niloufar Bayani, Taher Ghadirian, Houman Jowkar and Sepideh Kashani — all of whom were released in April. Bottom row, from left: Amirhossein Khaleghi Hamidi, Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, Sam Radjabi and Morad Tahbaz. Images courtesy of AnyHopeForNature.

In a 2019 statement, Panthera said Kaplan’s comments were made “as a private citizen, not in his official capacity as Chairman of the Board of Panthera.” That page is no longer on the website and returns an error: “This page has vanished … Make sure that wild cats don’t do the same.”

Prominent conservationists from around the globe later condemned the politicization of their Iranian colleagues’ work.

Despite their release from prison, it’s not clear if the PWHF staff will be allowed to return to environmental work in Iran right away. When sentenced, it was noted that they would be banned for a period of two years. Both Taher Ghadirian and Houman Jowkar are members of the Cat Specialist Group at the IUCN, the global wildlife conservation authority, while Ghadirian also serves on the IUCN’s Bear Specialist Group.

Where do Asiatic cheetahs go from here?

The case had a major chilling effect on conservation activities and scientific collaboration in Iran.

“International cooperation is an essential element of wildlife conservation, from joint research efforts, to the protection of transboundary species, and learning what types of conservation approaches work, and which don’t,” David Boyd, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and the environment told, Mongabay over email. “Human-rights based conservation is our best bet, while fortress conservation is a recipe for failure.”

International engagement is crucial for cheetah conservation, with events like the first global cheetah summit held this year in Ethiopia providing an important opportunity to share data and exchange perspectives, said Atie Taktehrani, a conservation research and monitoring manager for the Iranian Cheetah Society (ICS).

Such events, she said, “provide a window to the world’s conservation efforts, enabling a broader approach to conservation within Iran.” Iran’s government didn’t send a representative to the summit, despite receiving an invitation.

“An additional advantage of international engagement is the acquisition of financial resources for cheetah conservation in Iran, a support that was once regular but has ceased for years,” Taktehrani added. “However, given the present political situation in Iran, hopes for improved international relations are dim.”

Making matters worse, sanctions imposed on Iran can have unintended second-order effects, posing a significant obstacle to cheetah conservation efforts. Sanctions can make it impossible for organizations to establish international accounts, making many outside institutions unwilling or unable to engage with funding proposals from Iran.

Procuring equipment is another hurdle, with difficulties in shipping and import restrictions on certain technologies.

Taktehrani said this leads to a “reliance on lower-quality goods.” Sanctions also mean the Department of Environment has not been able to upgrade or properly maintain patrol cars used by rangers in cheetah-populated areas.

Lax law enforcement saw cheetah numbers decline due to human-animal conflict, habitat destruction and fragmentation, and declining prey numbers, over the past decades. Image by moosa_mazinanian via iNaturalist (CC BY 4.0).
Lax law enforcement saw cheetah numbers decline due to human-animal conflict, habitat destruction and fragmentation, and declining prey numbers, over the past decades. Image by moosa_mazinanian via iNaturalist (CC BY 4.0).

The Asiatic cheetah received legal protection in the 1960s in Iran. The establishment of protected areas helped facilitate a revival of prey populations, including gazelles. However, the turmoil that followed the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and the Iran-Iraq war, have been referred to as lost years. Lax law enforcement saw cheetah numbers decline due to human-animal conflict, habitat destruction and fragmentation, and declining prey numbers.

There’s no consensus about the number of cheetahs in Iran today. In January 2022, Hassan Akbari, the deputy minister for natural environment and biodiversity at the Iranian Department of Environment, told state media that the Asiatic cheetah population had plummeted to just 12 from an estimated 100 in 2010.

“We have very limited time to rescue the cheetah from the brink of extinction, and it does not seem that we have more than four to five years to preserve [this] valuable species,” he said.

Taktehrani said the number surviving could be fewer than 30, making it among the most endangered mammals on the planet. More than half of wild cheetah deaths in Iran are attributed to road accidents.

Earlier this year, the director of Khar Turan National Park said there were an average of eight cheetah deaths per year on the Meyami–Sabzevar road that passes through the protected area in Semnan province. Last year, officials said short-term measures were being taken to slow and reduce traffic after a female cheetah, pregnant with three cubs, was killed by a vehicle. So far in 2024, Iran says there have been zero cheetah deaths on the roads.

One study showed Iran’s cheetahs make year-round use of under-road culverts, where these are available. Almost one-third of individual cheetahs monitored regularly moved between protected areas.

Iran’s efforts at captive and semicaptive breeding of cheetahs have so far had limited success. Image by Erfan Kouchari via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0).
Iran’s efforts at captive and semicaptive breeding of cheetahs have so far had limited success. Image by Erfan Kouchari via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0).

The battle over camera traps

One of the key pieces of equipment for cheetah conservation has proved particularly controversial in Iran: camera traps. The arrested PWHF conservationists had been accused of using camera traps for espionage, which temporarily dealt a blow to the use of such devices.

The Asiatic cheetah population is fragmented around the arid Dasht-e Kavir (Kavir Desert) region, which spans the provinces of Yazd, Semnan, Kerman, Isfahan and Kerman. Unlike their African counterparts, Iran’s cheetahs tend to live in hilly terrain rather than on the plains. With this large range and low population density, the elusive species is notoriously difficult to monitor, leading conservationists to depend on camera traps.

“Camera traps are increasingly vital for wildlife population assessments worldwide, and their importance is amplified in Iran, where alternative technologies like satellite collars are not an option,” Taktehrani said.

But she added that using camera traps in Iran “is fraught with challenges,” due to regulations in the country impeding the use of networked systems requiring SIM cards, and sanctions that make it hard to import high-quality equipment.

There are also more prosaic challenges, such as camels loitering near water sources triggering camera traps repeatedly and draining batteries. This can often result in significant gaps in documentation.

Iran’s efforts at captive and semicaptive breeding of cheetahs have so far had limited success. Besides the wild population, Iran maintains a small group of captive cheetahs: one male and four females, three of which are fertile. In 2022, three cubs were born, the first successful captive breeding, but all perished. The subspecies lacks genetic diversity, making inbreeding a concern.

The Iranian Cheetah Society says present conservation measures “appear inadequate,” and that conservationists find themselves increasingly at odds with Iran’s Department of Environment on what ought to be prioritized.

“[The department’s] strategy focuses on increasing the cheetah’s prey population to avert extinction, yet they overlook the perilous transit road that continues to claim cheetah lives, with no protective plan in place for cheetahs outside protected zones,” Taktehrani said.

For the subspecies to be brought back from the brink will require an urgent and coordinated effort, Taktehrani said. According to the ICS, there’s no chance of the domestic population recovering without broader intervention. It says Iran should bring African cheetahs into Iran to add genetic diversity and more animals.

“For many people in Iran, the Asiatic Cheetah represents Hope,” Mehran Seyed-Emami, son of PWHF’s Kavous Seyed-Emami, told Mongabay over email. “Their survival is deeply tied to the ongoing drought, desertification, corruption, and mismanagement that runs rampant in Iran. Their ability and capacity to survive, is a true representation of strength, resilience, and Hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

“My Dad, along with their team at PWHF, had a mission to protect the life of this incredible creature,” he added. “He believed in nature, and in the possibility of a more beautiful world. He, too, embodied hope for so many, in both life and death.”

Citations:

Mohammadi, A., Almasieh, K., Clevenger, A. P., Fatemizadeh, F., Rezaei, A., Jowkar, H., & Kaboli, M. (2018). Road expansion: A challenge to conservation of mammals, with particular emphasis on the endangered Asiatic cheetah in Iran. Journal for Nature Conservation, 43, 8-18. doi:10.1016/j.jnc.2018.02.011

Moqanaki, E. M., & Cushman, S. A. (2017). All roads lead to Iran: Predicting landscape connectivity of the last stronghold for the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah. Animal Conservation, 20(1), 29-41. doi:10.1111/acv.12281

Farhadinia, M. S., Gholikhani, N., Behnoud, P., Hobeali, K., Taktehrani, A., Hosseini-Zavarei, F., … Hunter, L. T. (2016). Wandering the barren deserts of Iran: Illuminating high mobility of the Asiatic cheetah with sparse data. Journal of Arid Environments, 134, 145-149. doi:10.1016/j.jaridenv.2016.06.011

Farhadinia, M. S., Akbari, H., Mousavi, S.-J., Eslami, M., Azizi, M., Shokouhi, J., … Hosseini-Zavarei, F. (2013). Exceptionally long movements of the Asiatic cheetah Acinonyx jubatus venaticus across multiple arid reserves in central Iran. Oryx, 47(3), 427-430. doi:10.1017/S0030605313000641

Sarhangzadeh, J., Akbari, H., & Shams Esfandabad, B. (2015). Ecological niche of the Asiatic Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) in the arid environment of Iran (Mammalia: Felidae). Zoology in the Middle East, 61(2), 109-117. doi:10.1080/09397140.2015.1035007

Charruau, P., Fernandes, C., Orozco‐terWengel, P., Peters, J., Hunter, L., Ziaie, H., … Burger, P. A. (2011). Phylogeography, genetic structure and population divergence time of cheetahs in Africa and Asia: Evidence for long‐term geographic isolates. Molecular Ecology, 20(4), 706-724. doi:10.1111/j.1365-294X.2010.04986.x

Khalatbari, L., Godinho, R., Abolghasemi, H., Hakimi, E., Ghadirian, T., Jowkar, H., … Brito, J. C. (2023). The persistence of the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah relies upon urgent connectivity protection: A landscape genetics perspective. Conservation Genetics, 24(4), 461-472. doi:10.1007/s10592-023-01513-6

Kolahi, M., Sakai, T., Moriya, K., & Makhdoum, M. F. (2012). Challenges to the future development of Iran’s protected areas system. Environmental Management, 50(4), 750-765. doi:10.1007/s00267-012-9895-5

Farhadinia, M. S. (2004). The last stronghold: cheetah in Iran. CATnews, 40, 11-14. Retrieved from https://wildlife.ir/Files/library/IranianCheetah_Farhadinia2004.pdf

Farhadinia, M. S., Nezami, B., Ranjbaran, A., & Valdez, R. (2023). Animal behavior informed by history: Was the Asiatic cheetah an obligate gazelle hunter? PLOS ONE, 18(4), e0284593. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0284593

This article by Kayleigh Long was first published by Mongabay.com on 13 May 2024. Lead Image: Population estimates for the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) vary, but experts say fewer than 30 may remain. Image by Ehsan Kamali via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0).

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