In 2017, Niloufar Bayani headed to Iran to join the “Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation” (PWHF) on a conservation mission to help save one of the world’s most endangered species, the Asiatic cheetah. As a conservation biologist, Niloufar’s journey back home was a chance for her to apply her passion and skills to conservation efforts of Iran’s natural heritage and unique yet vulnerable wildlife.
Only 6 months into her mission, Niloufar, who had been monitoring the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah (also recognized as the Persian cheetah), was arrested alongside 8 others on charges of espionage. The team of conservation scientists and researchers, who had been working for the Tehran-based “Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation,” had set up camera traps across the country to document the rare cheetah – an activity initially approved by Iran’s Department of Environment.
The foundation’s LinkedIn page, one of its only remaining official sources due to an expired domain, draws attention to PWHF’s strong beliefs in cooperation with the Iranian authorities in order to make their conservation goals a reality. It further reads, “We extend a hand to all NGOs active in the field and seek their cooperation. We are ready to benefit from their skills and expertise. In the same vein, we consider PWHF to be an aide and a partner to the country’s hard-working officials in charge of our natural resources at the Department of Environment.”
Today, Niloufar Bayani and 7 of her fellow environmentalists – Sepideh Kashani, Taher Qadirian, Homan Jokar, Sam Rajabi, Amir Hossein Khaleghi, Murad Tahbaz and Abdul Reza Kohpayeh – remain in prison. The founder, Iranian-Canadian sociologist and conservationist, Kavous Seyed-Emami, suspiciously died just two weeks after his arrest inside an Evin prison cell.
Authorities ruled Seyed-Emami’s death as suicide, a claim firmly refuted by his family, friends and human rights activists inside and outside the country. In the end, despite efforts made to find answers to the environmentalist’s death, no independent investigation was permitted, and like many cases in the Islamic Republic, no accountability was provided.
The Iranian Department of Environment, supposedly tasked with responsibility over matters related to “safeguarding” the environment, operates under direct supervision of the President. Even though Niloufar and her colleagues had explicit permission to proceed with their work, the political corruption and murky laws in Iran are revealed in their wrongful convictions.
With Iran’s finest environmentalists behind bars and the regime’s utter disregard for the environment, it was no surprise that Pirouz, the last Asiatic cheetah in captivity, died of kidney failure at just 10 months old last week.
In January 2022, Iran’s very own deputy environment minister stated that only a dozen Asiatic cheetahs remain in the wild. From 2001 to 2017, the UNDP carried out “Iran’s Conservation of Asiatic Cheetah project.” When they decided to pull out funding in 2017, they left the fate of roughly 50-60 cheetahs belonging to this endangered species in the hands of the Iranian government.
That same year, Niloufar and her team at the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation stepped in to continue vital conservation efforts in saving the Asiatic cheetah on the threshold of extinction. They were arrested six months later, and while they’ve been in jail, more than 40 cheetahs have died.
March 3rd marks “World Wildlife Day,” a day designated by the UN to “celebrate and raise awareness of the world’s wild fauna and flora.” This year’s theme, “Partnerships for Wildlife Conservation” celebrates all conservation efforts.
The painstaking efforts of Iranian environmentalists like Niloufar Bayani and her colleagues behind bars, who have no reliable government to partner with, should be recognized on this day.