Big Cat Swap Raises Questions

Russia, Iran exchange tigers for leopards but some experts express doubts.
  • One of a pair of Iranian leopards which were exchanged for two Siberian tigers. (Photo: Hemmat Khani)
  • Staff at Tehran Zoo handle a crate containing a Siberian tiger from Russia. (Photo: Majid Asgarpour)
  • A large crowd of Iranians gathers to witness the arrival of two Siberian tigers. (Photo: Hossein Zohrevand)
  • An exchanged Siberian tiger in its pen. (Photo: Hemmat Khani)
  • Archive picture from 1950 showing Iranian army captain Ahmad Honarvar, who hunted the last Mazandaran Tiger.

The exchange of two Persian leopards from Iran with two Siberian tigers from Russia is part of an ambitious scheme to revive these big cats in their respective countries but some experts think it is a pointless publicity exercise.

The Persian leopard, which has become extinct in Russia, survives in numbers in Iran. The beast known as the Mazandaran tiger or Hyrcanian tiger has not been sighted in Iran since the late 1950s, when an army captain named Ahmad Honarvar shot the last one. A grainy black and white photo of him with the corpse has gone down in infamy in Iran.

Arrangements for the deal were made quickly. On December 28, a Russian delegation headed by the deputy minister of natural resources and ecology, Sergei Donskoy, asked for the exchange. Negotiations were soon concluded and on February 21 a memorandum of understanding was signed. The swap took place on April 24.

A few days after the two female Persian leopards arrived in Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin went to Sochi National Park to visit them, an encounter reported extensively in Iranian media. One media expert said the publicity may have helped alleviate a feeling among Iranians of a lack of international prestige because the government's foreign policy means it has few friends abroad.

Russia's interest in the Persian leopard is linked to its plan to use the animal as the national symbol of the 2014 Winter Olympics Games being held in Sochi. Russia also received two female Persian leopards from Turkmenistan as a gift on September 2009.

The leopards from Iran are to be kept at the Sochi National Park, in the Western Caucasus. The two Russian tigers will live at a wildlife sanctuary on the Miankaleh peninsula in Iran, in the south-eastern part of the Caspian Sea. Russian experts will manage the tiger repopulation project in Miankaleh for five years and at the same time Iranian experts will supervise the reintroduction of the Persian leopard in Siberia.

All four animals have been bred in captivity and the issue of reintroducing such beasts into the wild has been controversial. Research by Urs Breitenmoser and Christine Breitenmoser-Würsten, co-chairs of the Cat Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, showed that only 30 per cent of such releases have been successful.

The Siberian tigers brought from Russia are genetically similar to the extinct Persian tigers but not identical. A professor of ecology at Shahid Beheshti University, Bahram Kiabi, said, "Genetic similarity does not mean that the Siberian tiger is the Mazandaran tiger. These two are only related."

According to environmental expert and writer Kambiz Bahram Soltani introducing exotic species into a new habitat is wrong and can inflict irreversible and unknown damage. 

Abdolhessein Vahabzade, a Ferdowsi University professor of ecology, also questioned the project, "Today, all such projects are limited to newspaper headlines. Nothing is actually going to be done. Have we resolved the reason that caused the extinction of the Mazandaran tiger for us to now want to import a species related to it and seek repopulate it?"

Bijan Farhangdarehshouri, an ecologist and wildlife photographer whose efforts led to the revival of the hawksbill turtles of Iran's Qeshm island in the Strait of Hormuz, is also against the reintroduction of the big cats in Iran.

"These tigers can never be released into nature or so-to-speak transplanted because they have never lived in nature.  Bringing the tigers here was a political move and I am sorry to see that even the department of the environment (DOE) has been politicised," Farhangdarehshouri said.

Esmail Kahrom, an environmental studies professor at Azad University, wrote in an article in Hamshahri newspaper, "What are we going to do with these two tigers? We are going to release them in a protected 50-hectare area. This is not enough to provide food for one meal for a tiger as every tiger needs 35 kilogrammes of meat per week."

Iran's vice president and the head of the DOE, Mohammad Javad Mohammadizadeh, defended his project at a ceremony held to receive the tigers, "This decision like all other activities undertaken by this organisation has been reinforced by scientific research."

Another department official Hooshang Ziaie, who is in charge of tiger repopulation, is convinced of the success of the project, "The important issue is not just reviving the tigers but the restoration of the Miankaleh habitat. The arrival of the tigers will provide a good reason to protect this habitat."

Asked if the Siberian tiger could endure the weather of Miankaleh, which is much warmer than its natural habitat, the head of the Miankaleh wildlife sanctuary, Ali Abutalebi, said, "It has been decided to build a swimming pool for the tigers to swim in and lower their body temperature.

"By erecting a sunshade and installing air conditioners we will keep the temperature cool until they become accustomed to the weather here."

Two other mammal reintroduction projects have been implemented in Iran before; the Persian wild ass and the East Azarbaijan red deer. While the population of these animals has increased in captivity, they have not been released into the wild and in reality they have become zoo animals.

It remains to be seen whether the reintroduction of the Siberian tiger will be successful, but the DOE is already moving ahead with grander plans. It wants to revive the Persian lion, the old symbol of the country and the emblem on its former flag, which is now extinct.

Sam Khosravifard is an Iranian environmental journalist and an expert in wildlife management. He is the author of Natural Heritage of Iran.


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