Photograph by Behzad Farahanchi
SOLUTIONS | 09.11.18
Patience, Peace, and Persian Leopards
Against all odds, two Kurdish scientists are fighting to create a peace park in the heart of the Middle East.
Hana Raza has never seen a Persian leopard. But thanks to her, we know the big cats still roam the Zagros Mountains of Kurdistan. After four decades of war in Iraq, the species was thought to have followed the Asiatic lion and cheetah into local extinction. But Raza says she never lost hope. “It’s a very adaptive creature,” she says. “And I just thought, it’s too strong. It can survive the wars.” With a freshly minted bachelor’s degree in biology, she joined local nonprofit Nature Iraq, expanded the organization’s focus to include mammals, wrote a grant proposal for camera traps, and set them out.
Four months later, in 2011—snap!
A camera on Jazhna Mountain in the Qara Dagh district captured an image of a powerful male leopard, its rear haunch in the foreground, passing through. Raza’s colleague Korsh Ararat, a passionate birder, was in the U.K. working on his master’s degree in environmental assessment and management when Raza told him they’d gotten the photo. “I couldn’t wait to get back here,” he says.
Four years and two more pictures later, while setting another camera trap in the Darbandikhan area near the border with Iran, Ararat came upon a leopard in the flesh, just 10 meters away. “I was shouting very silently, saying, ‘Oh! This is a leopard! This is a leopard!’ It was one of the most exciting moments in my whole career. I mean… I love birds, but it was not like that. This bird had very big paws and very nice eyes.” He gives a heartfelt sigh.
That Raza, the manager of a project intended to protect the Persian leopard (Panthera pardus saxicolor
) has not yet seen one herself is unsurprising. The animal’s elusive nature is a big part of what has helped it to hold on here. But that hold is tenuous. The world’s nine subspecies of leopard, of which the Persian is the largest, were once found throughout Africa and Asia; today they are all at risk. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the Persian leopard as endangered, estimating that fewer than 1,290 adults remain. Throughout its range, the Persian leopard’s primary threat is people, who degrade the cats’ habitat, deplete water resources, and kill them with guns, cars, and poison. The fact that most of that range—here in Iraq’s Kurdish mountains; along Iran’s northern border with Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia; in Afghanistan’s mountains; and in the Caucus Mountains of southwestern Russia and Georgia—is prone to human volatility means that it can be difficult to direct attention, government policy, and funds toward conservation.
Today the two Kurdish conservationists are on a mission to save the leopard, which they see as an ambassador. Since that first camera trap image, they’ve been laying the groundwork for conservation: first documenting the predator’s habitat, then writing proposals and advocating for the designation and management of reserves. Protecting the leopard’s habitat, they argue, will help safeguard other threatened species as well, such as the spur-thighed tortoise, Azerbaijan mountain newt, Kurdistan mountain newt, and spotted belly salamander.
An Iraq with mountains, leopards, and newts defies the vision many Westerners hold of the country: dun-colored desert, oil wells flaring gas into the sky, trappings of war. Those are here, but the country is much more than that. The deltas of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers form some of the largest wetlands in the Middle East, the fabled cradle of civilization. And as elevation rises to the north, the land undulates through grass- and shrub-covered foothills, giving way to forest-steppe and the temperate broadleaf and mixed forests of Iraqi Kurdistan, topped by 10,000-foot peaks. This range of ecoregions makes Iraq surprisingly biodiverse, boasting some 400 species of birds, 500 plants, 90 mammals, 98 reptiles, 10 amphibians, and 100 freshwater and marine fish.
“In many ways, the Persian leopard could be considered the Kurds’ spirit animal: persecuted, squeezed from all sides, survivors finding refuge in the mountains.”
In the Zagros Mountains, the Persian leopard shares its habitat with Kurds, stateless people living where Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria meet. In Iraq, Kurdish freedom fighters, the Peshmerga, won semi-autonomy in 1992, earning a measure of freedom and prosperity. But peace has not persisted here. When the Islamic State seized nearly one-third of Iraq in 2014, Kurds were drawn back into fighting. Later, a Kurdish independence referendum in September 2017 was viewed as a threat in Baghdad, prompting the Iraqi government to send soldiers to retake oil-rich Kirkuk, close Kurdish airports to the world, and withhold some of Kurdistan’s governing budget. In many ways, the Persian leopard could be considered the Kurds’ spirit animal: persecuted, squeezed from all sides, survivors finding refuge in the mountains.
Raza and Ararat’s conservation work is revolutionary in a place where environmental concerns have long taken a backseat to human conflict. But it’s actually an outgrowth of their distinct experiences growing up in a war zone. And now, if they can overcome immense challenges—landmines, episodic violence, government disorganization, corruption, patriarchal attitudes, minimal funding, a public largely unaware of environmental issues—Raza hopes that the leopard’s salvation could catalyze the entire country to shift direction, warming Iraqi hearts to nature and conservation, changing priorities. Ultimately, she envisions a “peace park” in the Kurdish region that straddles Iraq and Iran. And although that dream has been tempered by events this year in Iran that left one of their Persian collaborators dead and many of the rest imprisoned, Raza and Ararat aren’t quitters.
Range of the Persian Leopard
Golestan National Park
Despite the countless challenges of this type of work, Raza, pragmatic and a little bit fierce, remains undeterred. “In anything that I do, I just decide to do it before I think about the negative things,” she says. “Because along the way you meet a lot of people who just shock you for being so cooperative and helpful…. And whenever I find that link, I just focus on it and I won’t let it go.” Her tremendous forward drive seems to pull others along in her wake.
“I could have never done it without my parents’ support,” she says. They were Peshmerga freedom fighters, “educated on Marx and Lenin, so their mindset was very different than their typical society.” Her mother, a strong woman, is an inspiration, she says.
Ararat also finds the seeds of his conservation work in wartime experiences. A soft-spoken man with a philosopher’s bent, Ararat has a birder’s quick draw with the binoculars and a propensity for funny, biology-themed t-shirts. Many Kurds in Iraq—including Raza’s and Ararat’s families—fled to Iran when Saddam Hussein focused his military might on the Kurds. Ararat walked to Iran with his family when he was just 8 years old. “We saw people who were killed by landmines,” he says. The experience was formative. “I was exposed to real life,” he says, and came to understand its deeper meaning. “Life is not about just me, what I feel. It’s everything, from one electron to the whole universe.”
As part of their work to map where the leopards live, Raza, Ararat, and their colleagues conduct interviews with villagers. One of those is Atta Kamil, a farmer who lives in a village in the Qara Dagh district. He grows crops and raises cattle, sheep, and goats. We meet him out by one of his fields, bordered by trees. He wears a thick mustache and the traditional capacious Kurdish trousers, and we step under an oak tree to escape the sun and talk.
“We haven’t seen any leopards here since the ’70s,” he says. But he does see a lot of wild animals: wild goats, wild boar, porcupines, badgers, chukars, partridges. Hunting is largely banned across Iraq, and Kamil says that he supports this policy, as do most of the people he knows. “We belong to this area; we belong to this nature,” he says. “We would like to keep it safe from any damage.”
Yet despite the hunting ban and Kamil’s support of it, in the previous three months, forest police in Qara Dagh caught about 60 poachers. The illegal hunters bring down mostly francolin, chukar (wild birds), wild goat, and wild boar. If caught, they are usually fined and given a short jail term, but for some, the penalties are too light to deter repeat offenses.
And according to Arash Ghoddousi, a leopard researcher who has studied various aspects of Persian leopard-livestock interactions in his native Iran, leopards strongly prefer natural prey over domesticated animals.
But he loves his job and doesn’t want to leave it. Four years ago, while on duty one evening, he saw a leopard. “I was very excited when I saw it,” he says. “I heard some people saying it eats humans, but I wasn’t afraid of it.” That’s a rational response, says Raza. Leopards rarely attack people. In all of her interviews over the past nine years, she’s only heard of two attacks, neither deadly.
And in Iran, home to about 65 percent of the remaining Persian leopards, other researchers documented 147 leopards killed between 2000 and 2015. More than 60 percent were shot or poisoned, and 26 percent were hit by vehicles. Although Iran created many protected areas between the 1950s and ’70s, says Ghoddousi, enforcing those protections hasn’t been a priority. Today, Iranian reserves are often understaffed, and poaching is common.
In addition to killing the leopards themselves, poaching the cats’ prey, especially their preferred wild goats, is also a major threat, says Ghoddousi, because one of the most important factors in leopard survival is an adequate prey base. Unfortunately, many leopard habitats are now heavily poached by local people. “In Golestan National Park [in northeastern Iran], we realized three out of four prey species declined by 60 to 90 percent in the last 40 years.”
In another place they hope to protect, the Hawraman region near the Iranian border, a local man filmed a grainy video of a mother and a cub. Still, the scattered nature of remnant leopard populations is a problem, Raza says, making it difficult for leopards to find each other and mate. If they succeed, a female usually has two cubs, only one of which generally makes it to adulthood. They can breed when they’re about a year and a half old but have perhaps a decade or less of fertility—if they survive that long.
To improve conditions for leopards and their prey in Qara Dagh, at the suggestion of forest policeman Salih, Raza’s team built a small earthen dam last year, creating a geologic basin to hold rainwater. Because there are no springs here and climate change is making the region drier, “the animals would have to walk long distances in order to get water,” says Raza. “And along the way they’d face a lot of threats.” Many animals have already begun using the new resource. As we walk along the pond’s periphery, we find tracks of grey wolf, wild boar, and golden jackals.
It’s also a problem for conservation. Raza’s ultimate goal of creating a peace park in the mountains straddling Iraq and Iran would require working with leopard researchers at the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF) based in Tehran. But earlier this year, the Iranian government imprisoned 13 people affiliated with that organization, accusing them of spying with their wildlife camera traps. One of the founders, Kavous Seyed Emami, an Iranian-Canadian, died or was killed in prison in February.
Just this past December, another person who worked with PWHF had visited Slemani, says Raza. They had documented leopards on corresponding sides of the border and were excited to propose those areas for protection. They made plans for Raza to visit conservation projects in Golestan National Park. Then “I didn't hear from him for weeks,” she says. “I texted him and got no response.” Later she discovered through an Instagram post that he, too, had been imprisoned. Although some PWHF researchers have been released, others remain in prison.
Friends and colleagues have advised Raza and others at Nature Iraq to avoid the border areas. With the Iranian partnership on hold indefinitely, she and Ararat are switching gears. They wrote a proposal for a grant from the IUCN to create a 2,282-hectare protected area for leopards in Qara Dagh. Eight government entities in Kurdistan support the proposal and have given formal approval to Nature Iraq to manage the area for the Persian leopard.
Because conservation is relatively new here, when Raza and her team meet with government officials, they are starting from square one, defining what management means and trying to determine which agencies would be responsible for which tasks. Working in Kurdistan adds complexity because it’s both independent and not. Overlapping Kurdish and Iraqi laws governing hunting and protected areas create confusion. “We’re sandwiched in between these two governments who are not completely willing to work together,” she says. However, it’s critical for a protected area to be recognized by Iraq so that it will meet international standards, such as those set out by the IUCN. They will submit the Qara Dagh protected area proposal to the Ministry of Health and Environment of Iraq, says Raza. If the IUCN approves the grant, they will start in January to form the Protected Area Management Board and write the management plan.
“I believe in patience. I’ve been patient enough to accomplish a lot of things that I have wanted in my life. Everything comes at the right time.”
—Hana Raza, Nature Iraq
Raza, also weary of conflict, hopes their struggle to carve out space for other species’ survival can sow the seeds of regeneration in Iraq. “We have fought for many years for no reason, basically,” she says. “It’s very important to me to plant the idea in our society that it’s culturally wise to have protected areas,” says Raza. “Countries should be recognized for… the way they treat their animals and natural resources.”
To realize that vision, she continues to push forward. “I believe in patience,” she says. “I’ve been patient enough to accomplish a lot of things that I have wanted in my life. Everything comes at the right time.”
Patience, not to mention persistence, will be necessary for everyone involved: for her Iranian colleagues to be freed and continue their work, for Kurdish forest police to receive their salaries, for Iraqi and Kurdish governments to work together on protected areas, for the Iraqi people to value and safeguard their natural heritage—and for Raza to finally see her first leopard.
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ABOUT THE Author
Erica Gies covers water, energy, critters and more on the science and environment beat. She holds a master’s degree in literature, with a focus in eco-criticism. Her work has appeared inThe New York Times, Scientific American, Nature, The Economist
, and others.
ABOUT THE Photographer
Behzad Farahanchi has been a freelance wildlife photographer in Iran for more than 15 years. As a photographer and photography instructor, he specializes in capturing images of carnivores in their natural habitat, and considers the Persian leopard to be the holy grail in this region. Whenever possible, he is happy if his images can in some way help to further efforts to protect Iran’s native wildlife.
ABOUT THE Photographer
Korsh Ararat has worked in the field of conservation since late 2006, when he joined Nature Iraq. With master’s degree in Environmental Assessment and Management from the University of East Anglia, he now works to protect the ecosystems of the endangered Persian leopard and its prey. Over the course of his career, his research, conservation efforts, and photography have focused primarily on birds.
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