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Iran's Wildlife Under Threat

By Sam Khosravifard (Source: Mianeh)

Officials show little interest in United Nations' campaign to halt decline in biodiversity.

Ibex in the Golestan National Park, northern Iran. The reserve is home to many large mammals including leopards, cheetahs, bears and wolves whose numbers are falling across the country due to habitat destruction and hunting.(Photo: Abutaleb Nadri)

When a big cat and her two cubs were found dead by the roadside in northeast Iran recently, it was a further blow to the survival prospects of one of the world's rarest animals.

The Iranian cheetah is the last survivor of a subspecies - a close relative of its African cousin - that once roamed from the Middle East to India, and there are believed to be only 70 to 100 left, so the loss of any individual makes extinction ever more likely.

Iran's large territory, varying from thick forest to high mountains and hot deserts, means it is home to an astonishing range of animal, birds and fish species. But 81 species - including the cheetah - are on the verge of extinction, with a further 56 under threat from habitat destruction and hunting.

Dr Borhan Riyazi, professor of environmental studies at the Islamic Azad University, cites other examples like the goitred gazelle and the Persian wild ass, the latter once widespread but now restricted to the Bahram Gur National Park in Fars province and the Turan Reserve in Semnan.

Iran has been a signatory to the international Convention on Biological Diversity since 1996, but like many other countries it faces a continuing loss of natural habitat and wildlife, despite having over 130 conservation zones.

The United Nations has designated 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity and encouraged member states to make a special effort to save wildlife species. This has little or no impact on official conservation programmes in Iran.

Seven months on, the official Environmental Protection Organisation, which operates under the president's office, has not come up with anything to raise public awareness about biodiversity issues.

A special website set up by two non-government groups to cover Iran's contribution to the International Year of Biodiversity remains largely dormant.

Officers from the environment agency bring in a Persian leopard killed by a poacher. (Photo: Mohammad Hadi Rostami)

For Iranian environmental groups, the problem is one of isolation. With few links to the outside world, most find it hard to get media attention.

When it comes to officially-sanctioned projects, the authorities have been poor at publishing comprehensive information. There is little information available on the progress of four major UN-funded programmes covering wetlands biodiversity, conservation in the Zagros Mountains, and protection of cheetah and Siberian crane populations.

A plan to reintroduce tigers, sent from Russia in exchange for a pair of rare Persian leopards, has been seen as largely a publicity exercise for the two countries. (See Big Cat Swap Raises Questions.)

The biggest threats to wildlife are posed by human activity - forest clearance, soil erosion through overgrazing and agriculture, pollution and hunting.

"We have destroyed underground water resources and ruined plants and fertile soil by building houses," said Bijan Farhang Dareshouri, an environmentalist and nature photographer who has also worked for the Environmental Protection Organisation. "We need only take a look at satellite pictures of our country to see the dimensions of this catastrophe."

These red deer are not safe from hunters even in the Golestan National Park. (Photo: Abutaleb Nadri)

The vast deserts that make up central Iran are, perhaps surprisingly, one of the most prolific areas for plant and animal species. But the government is now planning to drill for oil and gas, creating potential hazards to biodiversity.

Wildlife in the Alborz and Zagros mountain ranges has suffered from deforestation carried out for timber and to clear land for housing and new roads.

Agriculture and livestock, too, are constantly encroaching on wild nature.

"Our country has the highest level of soil erosion," Dr Riyazi said. "Destructive activities such as constant grazing by cattle in the deserts of Iran are still going on. The farmland with poor-fertility soil that covers most areas in the west, northwest and northeast of the country is still being ploughed."

Dr Riyazi said this farmland was typically located on hillsides and was at risk of becoming totally infertile.

As well as soil degradation and erosion, he said pollution by effluents in freshwater resources was a major problem, endangering dozens of animal and plant species.

Dr Esmail Kahrom, an ornithologist and a professor at Azad University in Tehran, says habitat destruction has been compounded by hunting.

"Over-hunting has put the few remaining animals in danger of extinction. When hunters won't spare cheetahs... of which only a handful remain, how can we expect such species to be preserved for future generations?" he asked.

Hushang Ziyayi, an advisor to the Environment Protection Organisation, believes that in the present critical situation, hunting should be banned at least in the short term. This breathing-space could be used to revive damaged habitats, while in the longer term, the answer is to educate the public and engage their interest in conservation issues.

Given the numerous political and economic pressures facing Iran, and the sluggish response to the UN's biodiversity call this year, it does not seem likely that things will change in the near future.

As Dr Riyazi says, "Whenever we talk about Iran's nature and wildlife, it is always very disappointing."

About: Sam Khosravifard is an Iranian environmental journalist and an expert in wildlife management. He is the author of Natural Heritage of Iran.

About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting ( the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic society that is Iran today.

... Payvand News - 08/09/10 ... --

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