Scientific American: Persian Leopards-Large Cats with a Small Chance for Survival

The article below in the Scientific American (February 7, 2014) on the endangered Persian Leopards of Iran was written by Sam Khosravifard. He is a conservation biologist and environmental journalist focusing on Iran’s wildlife and natural resources issues since 1997.

1-Sam KhosravifardSam Khosravifard is the author of two books, the Natural Heritage of Iran and Persian Lion of Iran. “The raccoon: an uninvited guest” is the name of a documentary which was directed by him to demonstrate how the exotic species could be a threat for the new environment. Sam received Erasmus Mundus scholarship for post-graduate studies and the second award of the environment and media festival held by Iran’s Department of Environment in 2010. Also, in 2006, he received Iran Heritage Award for directing the raccoon documentary. Currently, he is a PhD candidate majoring in natural resources management at University of Twente, The Netherlands.

The dangers to Iran’s environment, wildlife and ancient heritage sites resources has been also strongly highlighted by the activities of Dr. Mohammad Ala, who has produced three documentary films inside Iran in 2011 and 2012. One of these, “Immortality” received an Italian International Film Festival Award in June 2013 (the Grand Prix Film Italia Award).

Dr Ala-AwardDr. Mohammad Ala (second from left receiving Grand Prix Film Italia Award) along with two Italian mayors from Lecce and Bari who attended this event. The festival is known among Italians because it started in 1962. Thirty countries were present at the 2013 festival and a jury of film directors, film experts, and journalists selected Immortality to receive the Grand Prix Film Italia Award. The film producer (Dr. Ala) and its director (Mohammad Ehsani) were invited to attend this festival with Dr. Ala having attended the festival and received the award. For more see here

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In the past 40 days alone, seven rare Persian leopards (Panthera pardus saxicolor) have been killed or injured by poachers, food poisoning and cars, according to Iranian media reports.

The destiny of the leopard most recently harmed illustrates the cruelty of these incidents. The wretched cat was found in a forested area in the north of Iran with one front leg cut off by a foot-snare trap. After transporting the large male to a veterinary center, radiography showed that he was suffering from more than 50 small pellets and bullets scattered throughout its body and could not move due to spiral cord damage. There is no hope that the leopards condition will improve, according to an interview with its wildlife veterinarian.

3-Persian LeopardA leopard cub was saved by Iranians in southwest city of Khorramabad while it was trapped inside a well (Source: Scientific American with Original Credit from Mehr News Agency).

The Persian leopard, as one of the mascots of the Sochi Olympics, is the largest member of the cat family in Iran. Due to differences in local environmental conditions there is a lot of variation in both the size and coloration of these animals. The type that inhabits the northern regions of Iran, specifically the montane forests of the Caspian region, is one of the largest leopards in the world. Its height at shoulder can measure up to 75 centimeters with a weight of up to 60-90 kg, according to the Encyclopedia Iranica. The Persian leopard is officially considered an endangered subspecies included on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).

Despite being a flagship species, there is no reliable data about the population size, mortality or fertility rate of this powerful cat. In 2002, an article published in the journal, Zoology in the Middle East, guesstimated that 550-850 individual leopards inhabited Iran, which is known as one of the strongholds for most of the remaining members of the subspecies. According to some reports, the population of the Persian leopard has drastically declined across its range, mainly because of the decimation or disappearance of ungulates, which are its main food source. And food scarcity increases the potential for conflict between humans and leopards.

A survey published in Proceedings of the International Annual Symposium on Sustainability Science and Management showed that 71 Persian leopards were killed by illegal hunting or poisoned between 2007 and 2011 (12 of the cats have been killed in the last 11 months alone, according to Iranian media), but such surveys only capture the tip of the iceberg. The actual number of killings is much higher than reported.

persianleopard2-300x199A leopard killed in an automobile accident in Sefidkooh protected area near Khorramabad (Source: Scientific American with Original Credit from Mehr News Agency).

Some national NGOs of Iran received technical and financial aid from international counterparts in order to carry out studies focusing on the Persian leopard. Some attempts at camera-trapping were carried out in order to estimate the population size of the leopard in different protected and non-protected areas. Also, awareness-raising programs have been conducted to increase local peoples attention to the role of the leopard in local ecosystems. For instance, an NGO investigated and reported that seven leopards inhabit the Bamu National Park in the Fars Province of Iran. The NGO also educated students who live in villages surrounding the park about the importance of saving the big, spotted cat. One of the important roles that the leopard plays is controlling the population size of Indian crested porcupine, the biggest rodent in Iran, and wild boar, which might become pests of agriculture.

Recently, the Cat Specialist Group of IUCN assisted the Department of Environment of Iran (DoE) in the compilation of a booklet, titled Conservation Cats of Iran – a roadmap to a comprehensive approach for the conservation of the indigenous cat species of the I.R. Iran. The effort involved all Iranian NGOs focusing on the conservation of wild cats. Despite many useful hints regarding the collection of different types of data (via observations, genetics, camera-trapping and so on), there is no mention in the booklet on how to use or analyze the gathered data. It should be noted, however, that conservation and management plans cannot be implemented without reliable results derived from sound data analysis.

The DoE is the main government organization responsible for protecting and conserving wild animals, according to game and fishery law. It is clear that implementation of any conservation plan requires monitoring data regarding the target species, such as direct or indirect observation, and killed or alive sightings. However, it seems that the DoE has no systematic recording database to keep track of the number and type of leopard deaths, which include car crash, deliberate poisoning, or illegal hunting.

It may well be that the DoE has, in fact, gathered and recorded this data, but they are not available for public access due to lack of transparency in the government. This is regrettable because spatiotemporal analysis of data collected about killed leopards could provide realistic insights about the causes and circumstances behind these incidents. More specifically, results of such analysis could reveal critical spots and regions where human-species conflicts concentrate. Instead of the DoE, a few NGOs are gathering these data with the aim of identifying main zones of conflict.

Apparently, the fate of the Persian leopard depends on the outcomes of NGO efforts, on one hand, and on the application of derived analysis outcomes by the DoE, on the other hand. Hence, an important future consideration is how far the government organization continues to cooperate with non-governmental organizations in the effort to save these majestic cats.