Global Thesis Update: Big Cats of Iran

By: Teymoor Tahbaz ’12

Big cats have traditionally played an important role in Iranian history and culture, particularly the Asiatic (Persian) lion. Prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and since the 17th century, in the middle of the Iranian flag, stood a lion holding a sword with a rising sun behind its back. Known as “Shear o’ Khorshied,” meaning ‘lion and sun.’ The lion on the flag was in fact a Persian lion (became extinct in the early 20th century). After the revolution, this insignia was removed and replaced with a stylized “Allah,” symbolizing the new Islamic state. Ironically, the Islamic revolution of 1978-1979 that brought an end to the Shah’s regime also brought most, if not all, conservation efforts to an abrupt stop.

There are countless contributing factors that are driving the Asiatic cheetah and Persian leopard toward extinction. The heart of the problem lies with Iran’s rapidly growing population, and is exacerbated by a lack of prioritization and not taking the necessary steps to preserve the natural habitat of the big cats. The increasing number of people has led to an increase in the development of towns and cities, which in turn has led to an increase in roadways. Thus, there is a greater presence of motor vehicles, resulting in many collisions with cheetahs and/or leopards, and consequently killing them. In addition, Iran’s growing population is in need of more food. Hence, there is a significant increase in the amount of land used to sustain agriculture, which has also led to deforestation, overgrazing and depletion of pastures. The fourth critical component is the increase in pollution and lack of environmental ethics. The combination of these factors has led to the decimation of the herds of goitered gazelle, red deer, roe deer, wild sheep and Ibex, which subsequently has had a significant negative impact on the Asiatic cheetah and the Persian leopard populations.

There are numerous initiatives being taken to address the rapidly declining big cat populations throughout Iran. Unfortunately, this is not enough. One overarching solution is to generate domestic and international campaigns that would allocate a larger budget towards wildlife conservation and international assistance, whether in capital or active participation in conservation efforts.

Iran is full of diverse species of flora and fauna. However, many species of fauna, particularly felines, are critically endangered, on the verge of extinction or are already extinct. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified the Asiatic cheetah as critically endangered and the Persian leopard endangered. Over the last thirty years, a significant amount of poaching and human encroachment has led to the decimation of not only the Asiatic cheetah and the Persian leopard populations, but also of their prey. As of 2000, the IUCN has declared twenty-three species of mammals in Iran as either endangered or threatened. In recent years, a number of individuals and NGOs (non-government organizations), working with the approval and cooperation of the Iranian Department of Environment, have championed the cause of fighting for these felines and hope to stabilize their populations. Yet the populations of both these cats are still in decline despite recent conservation efforts. Clearly, more help is needed. Domestic and international campaigns must go to great lengths to raise awareness and funds to help reduce the risk of extinction of the Asiatic cheetah and Persian leopard.

The Acinonyx jubatus (ssp. venaticus (Asiatic cheetah)) and the Panthera pardus (ssp. saxicolor (Persian leopard)) are in dire need of help. Both of these felines exist in Iran, and the cheetah is critically endangered (only 60-100 remaining in the world) and the leopard is endangered (roughly 600 remaining in Iran). If there is to be any hope in bringing the populations of these big cats back to sustainable levels, a coordinated domestic and international conservation effort is required. For this to happen, it must first become a local priority in Iran. In addition, a concerted international effort that would encourage scientific exchange in the fields of conservation and environmental science and go a long way in assuring the long-term survivability of these species.

Global Thesis Update: Big Cats of Iran

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