- In the final days of June, three Iranian park rangers were shot by poachers, bringing the tally of rangers killed in such instances in the country to 119.
- At least eight rangers have spent years behind bars after being convicted of murder for killing poachers while on the job.
- The Iranian Department of Environment claims the rangers were released during the last year. But the conditions of their release concern environmentalists, who point to flaws in the system meant to protect both rangers and the country’s rich biodiversity.
One June 23 Mohammad Dehqani and Parviz Hormozi, two park rangers with a combined 35 years on the job, were patrolling a nearly impassable section of southern Iran’s Geno Biosphere Reserve when they came across poachers. While the details of what happened next are likely lost to history, the outcome is tragically clear. The poachers shot both men in the head and heart and left them for dead.
Two days later another park ranger named Manouchehr Shojaei met a similar fate in Bamou National Park in the country’s southwest. Poachers shot Shojaei in the chest then reportedly threw him off a cliff. He died in a local hospital a few hours later.
The stories caused public outrage in Iran and abroad. President Hassan Rouhani even issued a text statement calling the three men martyrs. Now the horrendous deaths are catalyzing a national conversation about a system that pits the country’s scattered, scarce, and undersupported park rangers not only against poachers but in some cases, the Iranian judiciary system.
The full story isn’t entirely accessible, even to environmentalists and journalists within the country, thanks to a mix of corruption, politics, the arcana of elements of Iranian law, and of course, the harsh, remote, terrain where much of the drama plays out. However, some numbers are available to define the toll on rangers. Poachers have killed 119 park rangers since 1956, according to media reports quoting the head of Iran’s Department of Environment (DOE), Masoumeh Ebtekar. And in roughly the last 10 years at least eight rangers have been imprisoned for murder after taking lethal action against wildlife criminals.
The Iranian government apparently released eight convicted rangers in the past year. But the conditions of their release remain largely unclear. And the two instances where the process is fairly well documented show that convicted rangers face major moral, legal, and financial struggles on their path to freedom.
Iran is an overlooked environmental gem, boasting some 1,150 animal species, of which the country’s DOE claims at least 74 are on the IUCN red list.
Persian leopards (Panthera pardus saxicolor) still roam parts of Iran, as do several other wild cats, including a rare subspecies of the Critically Endangered Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus), the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), and Arabia’s smallest wildcat, the sand cat (Felis margarita).
Numerous game species rely on Iran as one of their last strongholds, including the Endangered Persian fallow deer (Dama mesopotamica), the Asiatic wild ass (Equus hemionus), and rare subspecies of urial (Ovis orientalis isphahanica). A diversity of sea life also calls Iran home, like the Critically Endangered hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) and Caspian seal (Pusa caspica). Iran is also a hotspot for vegetative life, boasting some 1,800 endemic plant species.
By the 1950s some of the region’s charismatic species began to dissapear from the landscape, including the Endangered Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica). A decade later, the Caspian tiger (Panthera tigris virgata) had disappeared, too. (It has since been declared extinct.)
Officials learned from the early losses, establishing Iran’s first wildlife protection laws in 1956. By 1971, they had set up 35 protected areas across the country with restrictions on hunting, development, and agriculture, as well as six wildlife parks. Before the country’s 1979 revolution, the government had created eight national parks and established four categories of government-protected land: pārk-e melli (national parks), āṯār-e ṭabiʿi-e melli (national nature monuments), panāhgāh-e ḥayāt-e waḥš (wildlife refuges), and menṭaqa-ye ḥefāẓat šoda (protected areas). Experts credit these early efforts with halting the outright extinction of several species.
By historic accounts, Iran’s early protected lands were wildly popular with the public, attracting domestic and foreign visitors alike. The environment was a high priority in the mid-twentieth century, said Sheyda Ashayeri, a freelance conservation researcher with the Conservation of Asiatic Cheetah Project (CACP), a joint undertaking between the DOE, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and foreign conservation groups.
Then came the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
For many Iranians, environmental ideals went out the window with the upheaval of the revolution, Ashayeri told Mongabay.
“When you’re uncertain of your own wellbeing, your loved ones’ safety, and big economic and social changes are taking place all around you, your everyday priorities change,” she said.
In addition to Iran’s public and political concerns, the country’s legal system also underwent major change during the revolution. Elements of Islamic law were intermingled with the previously modern-slanting legal code, causing major discrepancies between new and existing rules, Ashayeri said.
Rangers at risk
Being a park ranger is a dangerous profession anywhere on Earth. The Melbourne, Australia-based Thin Green Line Foundation estimates that at least 1,000 rangers have died in the line of duty during the past decade, 200 of them in the past two years. Many of them were killed by poachers or other environmental criminals. The actual numbers are likely much higher, according to the foundation’s parent organization, the International Ranger Federation (IRF), a non-profit representing 63 ranger associations from 46 nations.
In Iran, three out of four ranger deaths were murders by poachers, according to the IRF’s annual “Ranger Roll of Honour” for 2015-2016, which lists fallen rangers and their causes of death. The rate is on par with South Africa, Kenya, and Pakistan. In India, by contrast, environmental criminals were directly to blame for just five of the 41 ranger fatalities during the same period, and in the U.S. firefighting or accidents killed all 10 rangers who died.
In the remote areas that most Iranian protected lands cover, land disputes have been a source of contention ever since the government took over private plots to establish the protected zones. Warlords and influential families have a lot of sway in these rural communities; many still claim the bounty of their former lands and occasionally resort to violence against rangers to prove their point, Morad Tahbaz, CEO of the Connecticut-based Persian Wildlife Foundation, told Mongabay.
Other wildlife criminals who wind up killing rangers are simply impoverished, he said, or looking for a bigger payout than most local jobs offer. NGOs claim the Iranian illegal wildlife market is robust, especially when it comes to native birds. Poachers capture some species live for the falconry trade, like the Endangered saker falcon (Falco cherrug) and Vulnerable houbara bustard (Chlamydotis undulata). Migratory bird species they harvest en masse for taxidermy collections as well as for food; many species appear on restaurant menus and in domestic kitchens.
Other animals, including fish and herbivores, are poached for bush meat and valuable parts and sold in local markets or filtered into the black market. The illegal wildlife trade threatens plants and animals alike, potentially even Iran’s endemic subspecies of Asiatic cheetah, which numbers no more than 100 individuals.
Another obstacle that is arguably as problematic for rangers as armed and motivated poachers are is the Islamic Sharia law of retaliation or retribution called qisas, according to Ashayeri. Qisas permits the family of a murdered civilian to set the terms of retribution, be it death, release, or a fine for the murderer.
Since 1976 rangers have had the legal right to carry loaded rifles, with the implication that they can use the guns if necessary. Yet with the introduction of qisas after the revolution, the reality of this provision became murky, Ashayeri said. All eight rangers tried as civilians for murder after using their weapons in defense against poachers were put on death row by victims’ families granted a say in their punishment under qisas.
In many developed countries, like the U.S., regular park rangers don’t carry weapons, but specially certified rangers, often referred to as park police, do. Yet in many developing countries, like Iran, all rangers rely on weaponry to enforce authority and protect themselves.
The reason Iranian courts sometimes view ranger cases as civilian murder instead of government-sanctioned self-defense remains unclear, but outcry from victims’ families, the local community, or people of political or public importance could play a role, Tahbaz and Ashayeri said.
“This situation is a peculiarity that nearly no one understands,” Tahbaz said. “The Department of the Environment doesn’t have the money or support to interfere with the legal system on the guard’s behalf, and while some are able to come up with the blood money to gain release, many stay in jail without real hope.”
Ashayeri, who runs workshops to address training gaps and capacity needs of Iranian park rangers, said rangers are put in an extremely compromised position in Iran. They are given a gun and a duty to protect the environment, but if they use their weapon in the line of duty they face serious trouble. Rangers are left without legal counsel or supportive funds from their government employer, unlike members of the police or military, she said. All of that has consequences for Iranian wildlife, she added.
“It’s hard to motivate people to do their job if they know they face jail, death, or the financial ruin of their family and loved ones by doing so,” she said. “And this precedent has created a system with dangerously low standards, where you can’t really blame a guard for choosing to stay indoors and sip tea as opposed to taking their chances with a poacher.”
Rangers’ murky legal status and the stiff potential legal consequences of doing their jobs contribute to an already difficult situation. For one thing, Iran’s protected areas are woefully understaffed. According to the UNDP mission in Iran, global guidelines stipulate that wildlife parks and reserves should have one environmental guard assigned to every 2,000 hectares (20 square kilometers) of land, which would mean Iran needs 11,000 guards. Right now the country employs just over 2,600.
The country’s small group of rangers also works in some incredibly harsh environments with little training and low pay. The job brings a salary of about 7 million rials ($225) per month, an income Tahbaz said is so meager it makes guards highly vulnerable to corruption.
The strain is likely to worsen. The government has committed to increasing the percentage of the nation’s terrestrial habitats set aside for protection from just over 7 percent in 2014 to 17 percent by 2020, and to setting aside 10 percent of marine and coastal areas, all under the international Convention on Biological Diversity.
Rangers’ changing fortunes
The past year brought a series of victories for rangers. The DOE claimed six out of eight imprisoned rangers were released last summer, according to news accounts, and another two were released in March. However, Ashayeri said she has heard reports of at least one additional ranger who remains in prison.
It’s unclear precisely what prompted the slew of releases, but sources contacted for this story said public pressure played a big role. The DOE also appears to have intervened on behalf of its employees, who were imprisoned under the previous administration.
When two of the rangers were released in March the circumstances of the releases became public knowledge for the first time.
As’ad Taqizadeh and Gholam-Hossein Khaledi had been tried for murder in separate cases and were imprisoned on death row. Both rangers had worked in the Dena region of Kohgiluyeh va Boyer Ahmad province in western Iran, an economically depressed area, Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights In Iran told Mongabay.
Taqizadeh, imprisoned since 2007 for killing a poacher, was forgiven by the victim’s family and released with years served. Celebrities in the artistic, environmental, and media communities had reportedly appealed to the victim’s father for forgiveness, as did local leaders and religious figures.
Khaledi was imprisoned for six years, three of them on death row, for killing a poacher who came at him with a knife in 2010. Three of his children died during his imprisonment, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights In Iran. The poacher’s family had set a diyah — essentially a blood money payment — of 12 billion rials ($400,000) for Khaledi’s release. The average annual income in Iran is only around 205 million rials ($6,600), and so a network of family, friends, and NGOs came together to purchase his freedom.
“The [Department of Environment] has repeatedly promised to help change laws so that park rangers are legally protected, but this has not happened yet,” said Ghaemi.
Ashayeri and others working on the front lines of Iranian conservation argue that if legal changes are made to ensure rangers’ safety, many of their everyday difficulties could improve, as could the country’s conservation projects. And the time is now, she said, since the environment is once again entering Iranian public discourse in a big way.
Growing public support
In 2014 Iran enacted a temporary ban on almost all hunting
In January 2015, a France24 article detailed the illegal massacre of migratory birds in Iranian wetlands, an important stopover and wintering grounds for many species. BBC article described Iran as a hunter’s paradise for those willing to pay: $15,000 to fell a Transcaspian urial, for example.
Also last summer, two park rangers posted a video on YouTube documenting a run-in with poachers in Khaeez National Park (see below). The rangers filmed the encounter on a cell phone, hoping to gain virtual witnesses in case they were prosecuted.
In response to all this bad publicity, Iran’s DOE issued a press release last August claiming positive environmental inroads, such as ending domestic production of hunting guns, increasing fines for poaching up to 20-fold, and improving support for rangers. The DOE also highlighted gun-breaking ceremonies where former poachers and legal hunters surrendered their weapons for destruction.
But this spring brought a fresh flush of public attention to the rangers’ plight. The prison releases generated media coverage, raising public support and involvement. Then came the three rangers’ gruesome deaths in June, which awakened many more Iranians to the realities of ranger-life.
“In the past few years people outside of the environment movement have become much more aware of the problem, first wondering who these game guards were then forming a sense of love and sympathy for them and a hatred for the hunters or poachers,” Ashayeri said. “Everyone was saying this is wrong, something should be done, but ultimately this is a governmental issue and change must come from the top-down.”
One legal clarification that she and other ranger advocates would like the government to make is ensuring that game guards and rangers are recognized as law enforcement officers, like police officers, and are permitted to both carry arms and use them when necessary. They would also like guards to have the same legal right to employ firearms in order to protect the land as do landowners, who can take forcible action against trespassers and suspected poachers on their properties.
The deaths this spring may force the government to take action on its promises of reform. The language in President Rouhani’s message to the families of the three slain men was strong, stating that the men’s “martyrdom underscored the importance of standing against environment destroyers.”
Tahbaz said he knows of a few concerned officials who may decide to bring the matter forward. And after June’s deaths, Iran’s chairman of the Environment and Sustainable Development Faction in parliament reportedly said “the parliament was ready to step in.”
But in a country that is chock-full of enthralling human crises and mounting resource shortages, and is just starting to come to terms with pollution, Tahbaz said it’s hard to say when true change may come.
“You’ve got to put this all into perspective,” he said. “In a country where the morality police is ever present and events like public floggings are commonplace, this is just one more issue, and unfortunately for game guards and Iran’s wildlife alike, not one that goes much against the norm.”