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Protecting the Asiatic cheetah in Iran: meet Morteza Pourmirzai

Interview with IUCN NL

by Morteza Pourmirzai

A small population of cheetahs inhabits Iran. It is the goal of Morteza Pourmirzai, environmental expert at the Iranian Cheetah Society, to conserve the Asiatic cheetahs living in the northern part of the country. Although the conservation NGO operates in a very challenging situation, Pourmirzai sees rays of hope: ‘Because there is no human activity in the Touran National Park, the cheetahs feel safer now.’ Last month, he observed a mother with no less than four cubs.

A refuge for the Asiatic cheetah

The estimated population of Asiatic cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) consists of 30 to 40 individuals. This critically endangered species lives only in Iran, mainly in Touran Biosphere Reserve. ‘Cheetahs are fighting very hard for survival; they have lost more than 95% of their habitat,’ tells Pourmirzai.
Until a few years ago, herders were allowed to graze their livestock in Touran National Park, the core area of Touran Biosphere Reserve. This core area measures approximately 110,000 hectares. These activities threatened the cheetah’s survival, because the herds ate the scarce vegetation in the desert area and sheep dogs occasionally killed cheetahs.

To remove livestock from the national park, the Land Acquisition Fund of IUCN NL supported the Iranian Cheetah Society and the Semnan Department of Environment to purchase the grazing grounds of the herds and improve the protection of national park corridor to another vital zone of Touran Bioshphere Reserve.

Water sources and local rangers

According to the environmental expert, eliminating human activity from the cheetah’s habitat is important: ‘If there are no people in the area, cheetahs feel safer over time.’ But more is needed to create the ideal circumstances for this critically endangered species to be able to recover, says the Pourmirzai: ‘Removing human activity was the first step, but we also have been establishing water resources, increasing vegetation and improving the park management. The Iranian Cheetah Society works together with the park management, and organises workshops for the rangers to better understand and thus monitor the species. The rangers are proud contributing to the conservation of the cheetah in their area as the last stronghold of cheetahs in the country.’

The approach seems to work: ‘The mother of the four cubs gave birth twice before in her life. It is the first time a cheetah in the history of Asiatic cheetah conservation gave birth three times, meaning she is reproducing more offspring. She is only seven years old and can still have more cubs in a few years. Another good sign is that she took the cubs out of their safe space sooner, we never recorded them at this early stage of life. And we expect two other females giving birth this year,’ says Pourmirzai.

Impact of climate change

Eliminating human activity from Touran National Park, does not mean theIranian Cheetah Society does not work together with the people from the area. ‘Most rangers are locals,’ shares Pourmirzai, ‘the herds were relocated to pastureland at the edge of the national park; most communities live in the border areas. ‘

A large part of Turan National Park is a desert ecosystem. Although the people and animals in the area are used to dealing with drought, climate change makes their environment even dryer. As a consequence, the battle for water and vegetation is getting tougher.

Camels are a new threat to the survival of the Asiatic cheetah. Domestic camels wander freely until their owners need them, says Pourmirzai. ‘The camels walk around in the national park looking for vegetation and water. They drink a lot of water, leaving less for cheetahs and their preys, such as the gazelle.’

Camera traps: an important monitoring tool

The presence of camels has a surprising consequence for monitoring activities. ‘They spend hours near the ponds, trapping the cameras traps we installed. Since the cameras automatically turn on when observing movement, we now have hours of tape of ruminating camels lying next to the pond, which is a waste of batteries.’

Because the batteries are only changed once a month, the camels make it much more difficult to monitor the cheetah population. Still, the camera traps funded by the SPOTS Foundation are crucial, states the conservationist:  ‘The cameras are our most important tool, because we do not have GPS collars or other materials to monitor the cheetahs. Due to the camera traps we noticed, for example, a cheetah corridor between Khar Turan National Park and Miandasht Wildlife, another habitat.’

Limited resources for conservation due to sanctions

Pourmirzai accidently enrolled in environmental studies, due to an error on his university application form. After two semester, however, he knew conservation was his calling. But after working at the Iranian Cheetah Society for several years, Pourmirzai was forced to find another job. ‘We have no possibilities for fundraising. All platforms are blocked and organisations from other countries cannot transfer money due to the sanctions imposed on Iran. A few years ago we could receive some funding, but now it has become extremely difficult.’

He is concerned about the future: ‘There is less money now, not only for conservation, but also for people. The Iranian Cheetah Society had a staff of ten people before, now only one person working part time. I had to take a job at a company and now work on a voluntary basis for the NGO. Seeing the new cubs made us very emotional, it is like a dream coming true. We are happy, but we also regret not being able to do more because of limited resources.’

‘The support we received from SPOTS and the Land Acquisition Fund helped us taking important steps. But if we want to save the cheetah in Iran, we need more organisations and more people; an NGO of this size cannot save an entire species.’

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