When most Westerners think of Iran they think of international politics, religious revolution, and Islamic culture. They don’t think of leopards. But Iran’s mountainous north is home to the greatest concentration of Persian leopards left on earth. Larger than their African cousins, Persian leopards once roamed far into the Caucasus Mountains in central Asia, including parts of Armenia, Azerbeijan and Georgia. Now, only scattered populations of these big cats remain in those countries, often in isolated patches far removed from others of their kind.   

“When most Westerners think of Iran they think of international politics, religious revolution, and Islamic culture. They don’t think of leopards.”

Iran remains their best chance for survival. There, scientists estimate that 550 to 850 leopards roam throughout the mountain ranges ringing much of the country, and along the forests hugging the Caspian Sea. But even in its namesake country, Persian leopards are threatened. Expanding villages, encroaching livestock and busy highways destroy habitat and create hazards for such a wide-ranging predator. In recent years, a new indirect threat has emerged as well: economic sanctions.

Morad Tahbaz, Director of the US-based Persian Wildlife Foundation, has seen much of this environmental degradation firsthand. He spent part of his childhood in Iran, and has fond memories of its mountains, desert and beautiful Caspian forests. "After the revolution [in 1979] I didn’t go back there for a long time," he says. "And when I did, I was struck by the deterioration of a lot of those things I had enjoyed so much as a child." 

The number of people in Iran had skyrocketed, more than doubling in less than 30 years.  More people has meant more mouths to feed and more human contact with previously elusive wildlife. Although Iran has an impressive number of parks and protected areas, herders sometimes graze their livestock in prohibited zones. When leopards occasionally kill vulnerable cows or sheep, the herders poison the carcasses to get rid of the offending predator. And local hunters illegally kill the leopards' prey – deer, Persian gazelle, Urial sheep and wild goat – to feed their families or to earn an income. 

Persian Leopard Iran Camera Trap
In 2011, camera traps set up by researchers managed to capture images of the Persian leopard in Golestan National Park. Photo: Panthera, courtesy of the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation.

In 2011, researchers installed camera traps throughout Golestan National Park – prime habitat for leopards – to count the number of cats still living there. They estimated that only about 27 remained and confirmed fears that prey species were severely depleted. Numbers in nearby protected areas were even worse. A 2008 study found only five leopards in the two adjacent protected areas of Ghorkhod and Bekawdeh. Nationwide, of 71 dead leopards documented between 2007 and 2011, 50 were killed by intentional poisoning or hunting and 13 were hit by cars.  

With so many conflicts and so little money, park staff are overwhelmed. "Iran’s Department of the Environment is managing over ten million hectares – that’s like 25 million acres," says Tahbaz. "Their personnel, their game wardens and their park rangers number less than 3,000. That’s not a very good ratio. And there are severe budgetary constraints. Iran needs more and better trained wardens."   

That's where international sanctions come in. Decades of economic isolation have crippled Iran's economy and left many conservation needs unaddressed. Last fall, after years of pressure from groups such as the Persian Wildlife Foundation, the US Treasury Department finally issued a general licence allowing non-governmental organizations in the US to spend up to $500,000 per year in Iran to support wildlife conservation. But the mechanics of actually transferring funds remain almost impossible, according to Tahbaz. Few Iranian banks are authorised to receive them, and foreign banks remain skittish about dealing with Iran.  

Golestan National Park Iran
The forests of Golestan National Park are prime leopard habitat, but camera trap studies carried out in 2011 revealed that only about 27 of the cats still survive there. Image: BeeFortyTwo, Flickr

In the meantime, Iranian NGOs such as the Plan for the Land Society and the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF) do what they can. After interviewing hunters and others living in the communities surrounding Golestan and Bamu National Parks, Sheyda Ashayeri of PWFH thinks she now understands why hunters are depleting leopard prey. "There are four reasons for hunting," she says. "Meat, money, pleasure and revenge."  Some hunters depend on park wildlife to feed or support their families, but many enjoy hunting as part of their cultural tradition. And some consider illegal hunting a way to push back against parks they believe infringe on their rights. 

Ashayeri and the NGOs she works with are now trying to involve hunters in park conservation efforts, paying them to help researchers identify the most effective locations for camera traps to monitor leopard numbers, and recruiting them as tour guides. For the past two years, hunters have worked at the Turkman Ecolodge near Golestan National Park during the red deer rut (mating) season. For years, these poachers had used hand-crafted deer calls (devices used to mimic animal noises) to lure stags in for a kill. Now, they use these same calls to draw stags into clearings for tourists to photograph. Collaborating with the park seems to reduce incentives for revenge killings, and most hunters enjoy their new roles, says Ashayeri. After his first experience as a guide, one hunter joked: "I think the deer is shocked that I’m not shooting it!"

But saving the Persian leopard will require cooperation beyond Iran's borders. Ultimately, Tahbaz wants to connect the Iranian leopard population with the isolated individuals remaining in the Caucasus to the north through a Persian leopard corridor of conserved habitat. And he hopes international politics won't get in the way. "Just because a lot of people don’t favour a particular government or regime shouldn't be a reason to abandon nature," he says. "Governments come and go, people change, everything changes with time. But you hope to leave enough in good enough shape for future generations to enjoy, experience, and to see." 

Top header image: Chris Barella, Flickr