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


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.

The Iranian Army: 1900-1921

Prior to World War One (1914-1918; also known as the Great War) Iran lacked a single unified standing army capable of resisting military invasions, a situation that lasted until 1921.

When the Great War ended in 1918, Iran’s military situation was dire. There were now four distinct military forces, in which each acted according to different interests: (1) the Qajar government national army (2) the Persian Cossacks (3) the South Persia Rifles and (4) the Gendarmerie.

(1) The Qajar Government force. Nominally the “national army”, this was in fact a highly ineffective force. Military equipment (especially guns and cannon) were mostly outdated and of substandard quality. Iranian arsenals were also poorly managed. The last military acquisitions were Austrian artillery pieces that had been delivered to Iran in 1898 (negotiations for more purchases had been made in 1901). Iranian troops were still using obsolete percussion and matchlocks, but there were numbers of more modern Snider and Martini (single-shot breech-loading) rifles becoming available.

1-Qajar troops-Germanic helmetsVery interesting photo of an assembly of Qajar troops prior to World War One; these troops show marked imperial German influence as seen by a number of troops wearing “Germanic” type helmets. The backpacks of the above troops resemble those worn by imperial German and Austro-Hungarian troops (Source: Russian Guns.Ru website).

The Iranian military of the early 1900s was in a desperate state. While Iran had on paper a total of 150,000 troops at Mozzafar e Din Shah’s time, barely a fraction of such troops could be raised when World War One began in 1914. The few available troops were hardly effective as a fighting force. Farjollah Hosseini, the Chief Consul of Iran to England in the early 1900s summarized the desperate state of the Iranian military as follows:

“…the military office is nominally 70,000 men but is officially nil as numbers of our formations have never seen service…it would take six months to get our army to move if we were to mobilize available formations. We have no weapons, no ammunition reserves, no military schools…no military regulations, no factories and no battleships” [Unit for the Publication of Documents-Office of International Political Studies, 1991, pp. 92]

While Hosseini’s observations regarding military factories and schools were somewhat exaggerated, much of what he told the British was accurate. Many Iranian officers lacked knowledge of modern military doctrines, and most troops were poorly trained and disciplined, and morale was low.

Qajar TroopsA small Qajar army detachment prepares to march (Source: قشون‌ نظامی ایران در زمان قاجار and Public Domain). Note the slovenly state of their appearance, such as boots, gear on belts (or lack of), unkempt uniforms (note person in the rear with oversized military coat). Due in large part to the Qajar administration’s mis-management, cronyism and corruption, the Iranian army by the early 20th century was poorly equipped and trained to defend the country’s borders against Russian, Ottoman and British (or British-Indian) intrusions. 

By the onset of the First World War, the Qajar army had ceased to be an effective military force capable of combating and repelling invasions from modern and well-equipped foreign armies.

Qajar Army Music BandFrench postcard with photograph of a Qajar military band attired in red-blue uniforms (Source: Fouman).

A serious obstacle against serious military reform was corruption in just the militayr apparatus but the Qajar government and society as a whole. Put simply, corrupt officials in important posts (civilian and military) often placed their personal wealth, personal interests and status ahead of their country’s interests. As a result, regular army troops, conscripts and levies continued to suffer from arrears in pay. The army even failed to provide its troops with adequate food, housing and a whole host of other essential services. To make matters worse, these same troops would also often see their personal income pocketed by their corrupt officers. Forced to make ends meet, Iranian soldiers were thus forced to engage in low-level vocational services and odd-jobs in the civilian sector such as hard labour and gardening. All of this meant time taken away from regular military training and preparedness. All of this in turn translated to increasing anger and resentment among ordinary Iranian troops.

Selling bread Tehran qajar eraShopkeepers at a bread outlet in a Tehran street in the early 20th century (Source: Due to arrears in payments or outright theft of monthly payments by their superior Qajar officers, many regular troops had to find other jobs just to make ends meet. 

The weaknesses of Qajar army forces allowed for foreign governments to invade Iran at will and to  sponsor breakaway movements on Iranian soil.

Tribal levies normally support the central government but increasing Qajar weakness and disorganization in Tehran meant that recruiting these troops for the regular army became increasingly difficult. Thus, while these warriors remained effective in combatting (though not stemming) foreign invaders, tribal warriors became increasingly beholden to the security issues of their respective local provinces rather than the country as a whole.

(2) The Persian Cossack Brigade. This was first formed in 1879, with the arrival of Colonel Alexei Ivanovich Dumantovich to Tehran with a Cossack contingent. The Persian Cossacks were essentially modeled and trained by Imperial Russia. These were essentially under Russian command and served imperial Russian interests in Iran.

1-Persian Cossack reviewElements of the Persian Cossack Brigade in Tehran sometime in the early 20th century, possibly in the 1910s prior to World War One; note the Persian sabres (Source: Russian Guns.Ru website).

The Persian Cossacks supported Czarist actions in suppressing the Constitutional Movement in Iran – notably the infamous bombing of Iran’s democratically elected Majlis (Parliament) by Colonel Vladimir Platonovitch Liakhov on June 23, 1908. The Persian Cossacks were finally disbanded on December 6, 1921.

(3) The South Persia Rifles (S.P.R.). This force had been formed by the British Empire by Fall 1916 on Iranian soil during World War One. Led mainly by British officers,  the S.P.R. worked to safeguard British interests (for the main part) in southern Iran, notably the Persian Gulf coastline and the new oil industry in Khuzestan province.

2-South Persian RiflesInteresting photograph (1917?) of British and Iranian officers of the South Persia Rifles (S.P.R.) of Shiraz, under the command of Lieut.-Col. W. A. K. Fraser, M.C., of the Central India Horse (Source: The Illustrated First World War). Note the description in the above photograph which clearly outlines the S.P.R.s objectives: “Guarding Our Interests in the Land of the Shah: officers of the South Persian Rifles”.

The S.P.R. had first recruited approximately 8000 Iranians and Indians into its force. Units of the S.P.R. were then stationed in Fars, Kerman and Bandar Abbas. The S.P.R. proved critical in suppressing anti-British revolts in the south during the war. At its height, this force was to have a maximum size of 11,000 thousand troops. Many Iranian politicians opposed the S.P.R., noting that this force was the British version of the Persian Cossack Brigade. London had assured that the S.P.R. would be turned over to Iranian control after the conclusion of the First World War. The force was finally disbanded in October 1921.

(4) The Gendarmerie. The Iranian parliament had voted as early as 1910 to hire officers from neutral countries with Sweden  soon chosen for the task. The Swedish mission led by Colonel H.O. Hjalmarsen arrived in Iran by May 1911 to quickly work towards building an indigenous Iranian gendarmerie. The mission proved successful.

Iranian Gendarmes-75 mm gunsThe most effective force of the Iranian military prior to and during World war One: the Gendarmerie – above are Iranian Gendarmerie posing with two 75mm (Shneider-Cruesot?) in Tehran prior to World War One (Picture Source: Morgan Shuster, The Strangling of Persia, T. Fisher Unwin, London, 1913, pp. 144, 152). Despite being a para-military force, the Iranian Gendarmes fought very well against opponents who enjoyed superiority in numbers and military equipment.  For more on the Iranian Gendarmerie, consult Stephanie Cronin’s article in the Encylopedia Iranica.

The Gendarmerie proved to be a highly motivated and relatively efficient force. These were the only forces loyal to the country and took no orders from Russia or Britain. They were however, a small force and despite their good training, lacked heavy weapons which prevented them from being able to repel foreign invasions.

Military Reform: Continuing Challenges until 1921

A serious problem for Iran was foreign, namely British and Russian interference: neither wished for Iran to have a strong, unified and modern national army. The British however, shifted their position, especially after the Bolsheviks overthrew the Czarist regime in Russia in 1917.

The Russians (Czarist and their Soviet successors) remained unfavourable to the notion of a modern, strong and militarily capable Iranian state. This is because if Iran were to possess a modern army, this would then be capable of repelling foreign invasions. Russia in particular was sensitive about this as it had conquered Iranian territory in the Caucasus and continued to harbour ambitions in not just northern Iran but all way towards the Persian Gulf. Despite having instituted a long-term and well-funded anti-Iranian cultural campaign in its conquered Caucasian territories, especially in the Arran-Shirvan region (Republic of Azerbaijan since May 1918), the Russians were deeply perturbed by the Caucasus’ historical ties with Iran. A reformed Iranian army and a strong national government in Tehran were seen as a threat by the Czarist regime in Moscow.

Early 19th century Map of IranMap of Iran in 1805 before the territorial losses to Russia of the Caucasus and Central Asia. Iran also lost important eastern territories such as Herat  which broke away with British support (Picture source: CAIS).

Following the end of the First World War, the importance of forming a unitary and modernized military was finally instituted. As noted previously, the disbanding of the pro-Russian Cossack brigade (now under British command following the overthrow of the Czars by the Bolsheviks in 1917) and the pro-British South Persia Rifles resulted in Iran finally having a unified national army, one of the chief aims of the Constitutional Movement of the Early Twentieth century.

K. E. Eduljee: An Introduction to Persepolis

The article below (An Introduction to Persepolis) is by K.E. Eduljee in the Zoroastrian Heritage website.


Persepolis (Parsa in Persian) is located in the present southern Iranian province of Fars (Pars) and in ancient Persia. It was the seat of government and summer palace (Susa remained the winter residence) of the Persian Kings from the early 500’s BCE until its destruction and looting by Alexander of Macedonia in 330/31 BCE.

1-NE view P-J

An artist’s impression of the Northeast view of Persepolis by K. Afhami and W. Gambke as it would have appeared (Source: Persepolis3D, K. Afhami & W. Gambke).

The site is popularly (and erroneously) known as Takht-e Jamshid meaning the Throne (or Palace) of Jamshid. Jamshid was a mythical king whose legend is part of folklore and he poet Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh.

While the present-day Persepolis / Parsa site is better known for the ruins of the royal palace / administrative complex, the site also contained the town of Parsa that existed adjacent to the palace complex, and which presumably housed the workers at palace complex, soldiers, artisans, crafts persons and other town residents. The town was surrounded by a fortification wall.

The Building of Persepolis

At the start of his reign around 521 BCE, Darius I, King of Persia (521-486 BCE) moved his capital from Babylon to Susa, where he started construction on a grand palace. No sooner had the palace at Susa been completed when Darius decided to build a palace complex in his native Pars. While the precise date when the extensive excavation work at the Persepolis site is not known, it is assumed to have started between 518 and 516 BCE.

2-Map of Achaemenid Empire-Kaveh Farrokh-2007Map of the Achaemenid Persian Empire in c. 500 BCE (Source: Farrokh, page 87, 2007, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا).

Darius lived long enough to see a part of his grandiose and ambitious plans executed. His son and successor Xerxes I (485-465 BCE) continued construction and the Persepolis we know was for the main part completed during Xerxes’ reign. A foundation inscription at Persepolis states:

When my father Darius passed from the throne, I by the grace of Ahuramazda became king on my father’s throne. After I became king… I continued work and added to what my father had built.”

Work at Persepolis was completed a hundred years after its start during the reign of Artaxerxes I (464-424 BCE), Xerxes’ son and heir to the throne.

3-Persepolis View TodayA view of the ruins of Persepolis form the hill behind the complex and looking west. In the background are the plains of the Marv Dasht basin (Source: Heritage Institute).

Location of the Site and Size

The site is located 60 km northeast of present day Shiraz, at an altitude of 1,800 meters on the eastern perimeter of the broad plain called the Marv Dasht basin. It is close to the small river Pulwar and the east side of the complex butts against the Kuh-e Rahmat or the Mountain of Mercy.

4-Marv Dasht Site and Kuh Rahmat MapSites and environs around Persepolis – Marv Dasht and Kuh-e Rahmat (Source:Heritage Institute & The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago).

The Palace complex was brightly painted. At any time of the day and especially at twilight, the white-painted columns and gold-toned roof caps must have afforded a spectacular sight from afar.

The relatively small size of the ruins, belies the true scale of the township of Persepolis. The palace was surrounded by numerous dwellings. While there is no estimate of the population, it was in the thousands.

Site Map

The palace complex is built on top of a 450 m long and 300 m wide i.e. 135,000 square meter terrace, raised between 7.5 to 18 meters off the lower slope.

The terrace is accessed by a double stairway that leads to the Gate of Nations (also called the Gate of Xerxes). To the left of the gate is the Apadana or audience hall.

The principle buildings are identified in the site plan on the right.

Identification of the Site

Locally, the site has traditionally been thought to be the palace of legendary King Jamsheed – therefore its local name, Takht-e Jamsheed (the Throne/Palace of Jamsheed). Less commonly, the site was also known as Chelminar (Forty-Minarets) or Sad-Sotun (Hundred-Columns).

In his travelogue, Italian and late-medieval Franciscan friar, Odoric of Pordenone, (also known as Odorico Mattiussi or Mattiuzzi and Odoricus), notes that (around 1320) he passed through Persepolis on his way to China. Odoric who had set out on his travels in 1313, calls the site Comerum – a name that Austrian scholar Alfons Gabriel would later point out was derived from the name of a nearby village – Kenareh. However, Ali Mousavi in his book, Persepolis, points out may also be a corruption of Kazerun – another village near Bishapur.

5-Persepolis Plannung auf deutschSite plan of Persepolis (Source: Public Domain).

In 1472 or 1474, Venetian traveller Giosafat (or Josaphat) Barbaro visited the ruins of Persepolis and incorrectly surmized the ruins of Jewish origin. In his report, the Jornada (1606), Antonio de Gouveia from Portugal described Persepolis’ cuneiform inscriptions following his visit to the site in 1602.

The site was first identified as Persepolis, the capital of the Persian Achaemenid Empire in 1620-21 by Pietro della Vallee.

Jean-Baptiste Chardin (later to become Sir John Chardin) visited Persepolis on three occasions in 1667, 1673, and 1674. On his third visit, Chardin was accompanied by artist Andre Daulier-Deslandes who had previously published a panoramic drawing of the site. Chardin would argue that the site was not the ruins of a palace, but that of a temple. His argument was that palaces were built on river banks and not on hill slopes. Little did Chardin know of the Zoroastrian admonition not to pollute rivers. Chardin records the defacement and continued destruction of the ruins by successive Islamic era governments including Shah Abbas, the general Imam Koli Khan and even more so by Khan’s successor.

German naturalist, Engelbert Kaempfer visited the ruins in 1686 and was the first to call the inscriptions ‘cuneatae’ i.e. cuneiform.

Cornelis de Bruijn (also spelled Cornelius de Bruyn, 1652-1727), a Dutch traveller, visited Persepolis between 1704 and 1705. His account Reizen over Moskovie, door Persie en Indie published in 1711, contains exquisite drawings.

Around 1764 CE, Carsten (or Karsten) Niebuhr (1733 – 1815), a German mathematician, cartographer, and explorer, visited the ancient site at Behistun and made copies of the cuneiform inscriptions. He visited Persepolis in March 1765, and in three weeks and a half copied all the texts. His reproductions of the text engraved in rock faces were prepared so diligently, that few changes have been made to them since.

The Persian governor of Shiraz authorized a preliminary excavation in 1878.

6-Persepolis_rendering_oldReconstruction of Persepolis, by Eugene Flandin and Pascal Coste (19th century) (Source: Public Domain).

The Oriental Institute of Chicago commissioned the first thorough archaeological exploration headed by Ernst Herzfeld, then Professor of Oriental Archaeology in Berlin, and assisted by Fritz Schmidt. Their work at the site extended from 1931 to 1939. Together, Herzfeld and Schmidt uncovered on the Persepolis Terrace, the Eastern Stairway of the Apadana and the small stairs of the Council Hall. Herzfeld was accused of attempting to smuggle artifacts out of Iran and had to leave the country.