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Protect Persian leopards, and their defenders, for World Environment Day (commentary)

  • For World Environment Day 2022 on June 5, Jane Goodall and 50 other conservationists published a letter urging protection for Persian leopards and and clemency for seven scientists imprisoned for their work studying the cats.
  • In an open letter, the scientists highlight the impact of current conflicts, sanctions, and political tensions on the conservation of the leopard, whose range spans 11 countries, including Iran. It was in Iran where nine conservationists associated with the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation were arrested in January 2018, accused of spying because they were using camera traps. One of the conservationists, Kavous Seyed-Emami, who died in jail. The rest still sit in prison.
  • Goodall and her colleagues call for the release of the imprisoned scientists and actions to facilitate international cooperation beyond recent political circumstances.
  • This letter is a commentary containing the opinions of its writers and signers, not necessarily of Mongabay.

At times of anguish and confusion we turn to nature to quiet the mind and find healing. We hold on to the miraculous survival of wildlife and ecosystems, to persist in the face of struggles we have no control over, leaving us often drained and hopeless.

For us, one of those miracles is a beautiful feline, the Persian leopard (Panthera pardus tulliana), roaming mountains and cold winter deserts of Central Asia and the Middle East. Persian leopard range spans across 11 countries: Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Russia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were part of the range but they are now considered extinct there. Almost 80% of these leopards are found in Iran, followed by Turkmenistan. In the Caucasus, long-term conservation efforts have led to the unique recovery of a small population in the Zangezur region, including the south of Armenia and southeast of Azerbaijan’s Nakhchevan Autonomous Republic (Persian Leopard Working Group (2022) Range-Wide Strategy for the Conservation of the Persian Leopard Panthera pardus tulliana, draft).

During the summer of 2021, a Persian leopard was camera trapped in Tusheti Protected Areas in Georgia after a 12 year-long absence. Shortly after, Persian leopards (not related to the reintroduction program in the Russian Caucasus) were spotted in Russian Kabardino-Balkaria, Chechnya and Dagestan. In Kazakhstan, Persian leopards were re-discovered in 2018, though unfortunately the only animal known there died in 2021. Recently in Turkey, leopards were recorded at four different locations, some of which are dispersing male individuals from the source populations in the Lesser Caucasus. In Iraq, since its recovery in 2011, around nine dispersing males and a female have been identified in the Kurdistan region, at eight different locations. At least three leopards have been killed in the region in the last five years.

Persian leopard caught on a camera trap in 2019.

Persian leopard research and activities have ignited awareness and advocacy for these cats and the classic threats they face (poaching, loss of habitat and prey, human-wildlife conflict) but also raised awareness in the countries they inhabit and the importance of maintaining connectivity among them, and not just in the ecological sense. Some of the Persian leopard range countries face different political challenges.

In the Caucasus, between Azerbaijan and Armenia, leopards navigate a landscape of mines and tensions brought by the still ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Military operations along the Iraq-Iran and Iraq-Turkey borders continue to displace people and burn Iraq’s few surviving natural forests. Since the advent of ISIS in 2014, political tensions and economic recession have pushed biodiversity and species conservation to the bottom of the priority list in the country, with no local funding available to support local conservation projects. Changes in U.S. leadership in 2016 resulted in the U.S. exit from the Comprehensive Plan of Action (“the Iran nuclear deal”) and “maximum” pressure sanctions, not only hurting and isolating the people of Iran, but also indirectly hurting conservation initiatives, and some of the very people leading them.

In January 2018, nine conservationists associated with the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation were arrested, including Kavous Seyed-Emami, who died in jail in February 2018. They were accused of spying because they were using camera traps, not widely understood to be important conservation tools at the time: four years and four months later, seven of them are still in jail.

In August 2021, the Taliban surged back to power in Afghanistan, sending into exile many at-risk conservationists, and the National Environmental Protection Agency into disarray. The continued freeze of Afghan funds has precipitated an already dire humanitarian crisis which the nature and wildlife of Afghanistan are also paying the price for. The very few leopards in Afghanistan have now an even more bleak chance of surviving.

Lastly, in February 2022, the Russian invasion of Ukraine triggered international measures to isolate Russia and its citizens, effectively putting a stop to international cooperation in the environmental field. It is unfortunate since the future of the Persian leopard in the Greater Caucasus in Georgia benefits from such cooperation.

A Persian leopard. Image via Peoples Trust for Endangered Species.

The Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) and the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) plan to organize a Range States Meeting to adopt a Regional Strategy for the Conservation of the Persian Leopard, in the framework of the Central Asian Mammals Initiative Programme of Work. Over the past year, a group of experts from across the leopard’s range led by the IUCN Special Survival Commission Cat Specialist Group co-chairs, worked to develop the foundations for it. The meeting is scheduled to take place in September 2022 in Tbilisi, Georgia.

The draft strategy is very ambitious, and the success of its implementation rests very much on the recognition that nature and conservation require international cooperation and funding, as well as keeping our community of conservationists safe to do the work it takes to protect the Persian leopard. Camera traps are also essential for monitoring wildlife: they may not have been well understood five years ago, but they have since been demonstrated to be a fantastic way of learning about elusive animals, and much research could not be possible without them.

We would therefore like to call for:

We hope that soon the international community recognizes that the conservation of the Persian leopard and the lives of its defenders are intertwined, and we encourage all Persian leopard range states to stand behind their important work.

 

Jane Goodall, conservationist, U.K.

Hedieyeh Tehrany, conservationist, Iran

The letter is also signed by the following:

  1. Abdul Wali Modaqiq, conservationist, Afghanistan
  2. Abnous Sadeghi, conservationist, Iran
  3. Alex Dehgan, conservationist, U.S.
  4. Ali Madad Rajabi, conservationist, Afghanistan
  5. Ali Ranjbaran, conservationist, Iran
  6. Azar Sedaghati Khayat, conservationist, Iran
  7. Arash Ghoddousi, conservationist, Iran
  8. Bejan Lortkipanidze, conservationist, Georgia
  9. Bilal Mustafa, conservationist, Pakistan
  10. Christiane Roettger, conservationist, Germany
  11. Corinna Van Cayzeele, conservationist, Germany
  12. Danial Nayeri, conservationist, Iran
  13. Delaram Ashayeri, conservationist, Iran
  14. Deniz Mengüllüoğlu, conservationist, Turkey
  15. Farid Perota, conservationist, Iran
  16. Gholamreza Ghaderi, conservationist, Iran
  17. Giorgi Arabuli, conservationist, Georgia
  18. Jalaludin Naseri, conservationist, Afghanistan
  19. Hamed Abolghasemi, conservationist, Iran
  20. Hana Raza, conservationist, Iraq
  21. Haniyeh Ghaffari, conservationist, Iran
  22. Hosein Yusefi, conservationist, Iran
  23. Igor Khorozyan, conservationist, Armenia
  24. Iman Memarian, wildlife veterinarian, Iran
  25. Jeiran Khoylou, conservationist, Iran
  26. Koen Cuyten, The Netherlands
  27. Korsh Ararat, conservationist, Iraq
  28. Ladan Salamat, conservationist, Iran
  29. Leili Khalatbari, conservationist, Iran
  30. Mahgol Kazari, conservationist, Iran
  31. Maria Gritsina, conservationist, Uzbekistan
  32. Mark Pestov, conservationist, Russia
  33. Mehran Seyed Emami, conservationist, Iran
  34. Nahid Ahmadi, conservationist, Iran
  35. Nasratullah Jahed, conservationist, Afghanistan
  36. Natalie Schmitt, conservationist, Canada
  37. Niloufar Raeesi, conservationist, Iran
  38. Pooyia Ghoddousi, conservationist, Iran
  39. Pooriya Sepahvand, conservationist, Iran
  40. Rodrigo Medellin, conservationist, Mexico
  41. Rooyesh Hashim, conservationist, Afghanistan
  42. Samira Firouz, conservationist, Iran
  43. Shabnam Vaghayenegar, conservationist, Iran
  44. Sheyda Ashayeri, conservationist, Iran
  45. Siavash Ghoddousi, conservationist, Iran
  46. Tatjana Rosen, conservationist, Georgia
  47. Vladimir Terentiev, conservationist, Kazakhstan
  48. Yasaman Talebi, conservationist, Iran