Racing from Extinction

Iran is home to several species of endangered animals. But sanctions and the lack of public and government interest means the only certified wildlife veterinarian in the country has to resort to doing checkups on Pomeranians and Dachshunds in his spare time to make a living.

The borders of Iran are home to some of the most critically endangered animals in the world. Some, like the Asiatic Cheetah, can only be found inside the Islamic Republic. An estimated 50 individuals are left in the world.

In a city devoid of high rise skyscrapers, Milad Tower, the sixth tallest in the world, dominates Tehran’s cityscape. It is a major attraction for tourists and locals alike, providing unparalleled views of the city and the Alborz mountains to the North. But laying in the shadow of the tower, hidden from view behind a web of chain link fences in the Pardisan National Park, are two of the country’s greatest treasures — a pair of Asiatic Cheetahs named Koushki and Delbar.

Koushki, an 8-year-old male, and Delbar, a 5-year-old female, are the only Asiatic cheetahs in captivity in the world, and are also one of the last remaining members of their species.

More lightly built and less social than their African counterparts, the Asiatic Cheetah became a genetically distinct subspecies around thirty-two thousand years ago. Once ranging across much of Western Asia, today the fifty or so surviving individuals are found only in Iran.

The Islamic Republic has a history with big cats — and losing them to extinction. The Caspian Tiger has already gone the way of the dodo, and the Persian Lion, once a proud emblem on the Iranian flag, is all but gone save a small population in India. With the rest of their kin beset by rapid habitat loss and illegal hunting, Koushki and Delbar could see the end of their species within the next two decades.

Dr Iman Memarian, 33, is the country’s only wildlife veterinarian, and the only man qualified to take care of the two Asiatic Cheetahs in captivity at the Pardisan National Park. Here he holds a rope wrapped stick he uses to keep the cheetahs at bay. “The cheetahs may be used to people, but they are still wild animals. If you run or show any fear, they will chase you, and they will try to kill you.”

Meanwhile, medical aid for the imperiled cheetahs — and the rest of Iran’s diverse fauna — becomes all the more important. But despite this, there is only one qualified wildlife veterinarian in the country. And he works pro bono.

Dr Iman Memarian, 33, could have chosen any major he wanted with the grades he scored in the university entrance exam. He could have studied to be a physician, or a pharmacologist, or any one of the many professions that would provide money and a comfortable life. Instead, he pursued his childhood passions and chose wildlife medicine. After completing his studies in South Africa and Europe, he returned to Iran, where he was entrusted with the lives of Koushki and Delbar.

Dr Memarian tries to approach Koushki, an 8-year-old male Asiatic Cheetah. He was captured by illegal hunters as a cub before being rescued and brought to the Pardisan National Park. Asiatic Cheetahs are shy creatures, making them one of the more difficult animals to observe in the wild.

“You know as a conservationist you need to be hopeful for the future,” Dr Memarian says, acknowledging the dire situation the cheetahs are in. “And the reason why I work on wildlife is to change the situation and save this hope for the future.”

In his line of work, Dr Memarian anesthetizes many animals a day. It is a relatively simple task, but when you are working with animals as precious as Koushki and Delbar, the stakes are astronomically high. A single miscalculation in dosage could be an irreparable loss to an entire species.

Delbar, a 5-year-old female Asiatic Cheetah, was found orphaned as a small cub. Her first mating attempt ended in an abortion and subsequent infection of her uterus. Although fully recovered, Dr Memarian is unsure if she can breed again.
Koushki looks out towards Delbar’s enclosure, concerned about his mate’s well being. The bond between the two cheetahs is strong, but as Dr Memarian says, “they are more like brother and sister than husband and wife.”

“Yeah there is a lot of pressure,” Dr Memarian laughs. “It is really hard to save the lives of wild animals, and when there is only two of them, and one of them dies, it is finished.”

It is a stressful job, for sure, but he is literally the only man in the country qualified for it.

“Before I came, there was nobody,” Dr Memarian says. “After I’m gone, probably there will be nobody to take over.”

In the control station of the Pardisan National Park, Dr Memarian observes the cheetahs via CCTV cameras. As a wildlife vet and a conservationist, he tries to be hopeful for the cheetahs, but without backing from the government and the Iranian public, he predicts the Asiatic Cheetah will be extinct within the next two decades.

That is not to say nobody is interested in becoming veterinarians in Iran; there are twenty-two universities offering veterinary medicine majors in the country. But being a wildlife vet in Iran means giving up on any reasonable source of income.

“I’m not saying that wildlife vets around the world have money, but with wildlife here in Iran, it is not like a small amount of money. There is nothing,” Dr Memarian says.

This means that all the veterinary medicine students in Iran ultimately choose to work with poultry or pets instead of wildlife. Dr Memarian himself has had to set up his own pet clinic in Tehran just to make a living.

Despite being the only qualified wildlife vet in Iran, Dr Memarian gets no funding or monetary compensation for his work with wildlife. To make ends meet, he set up his own pet clinic in the North of Tehran, helping the growing number of dog owners in the country.
Dr Memarian has many students under his wing, but he is not hopeful that any of them will choose wildlife medicine over poultry or pets. “It’s not like there is a small amount of money,” he warns his students. “There is nothing.”

That a man as important to the health of a nation’s biodiversity as Dr Memarian is paid nothing for his efforts is symptomatic of Iran’s stance on animal conservation.

Nazarin Zr, 27, a masters student in accounting from Shiraz, says, “There are so many other problems here in Iran — economics, pollution, sanctions — people don’t really have time to care about animals.

The very concept of conservation is a hard sell for Iranians living in some of the more rural parts of the country, where contact with large predators is an everyday occurrence.

“They don’t understand why we’re trying to save these animals,” says Mr Kaveh Hobeali, 28, a wildlife researcher with the Iranian Cheetah Society, an NGO dedicated to wildlife conservation. “They just want to get rid of these animals so their livestock can be safe.”

When he is not with the cheetahs or treating pets in his clinic, Dr Memarian works at the Tehran Zoo. Here he’s with Aftab, a female Siberian Tiger who smashed the glass panels of her enclosure. She will be kept in quarantine until her enclosure has been repaired.

Dr Memarian remains hopeful, citing ecotourism as a potential solution for the endangered animals in Iran. He says that once people start to realize that there is money to be had in keeping these animals alive, support for conservation will appear.

“You cannot just say oh these are the last cheetahs in the world, so please save them for me, but you can say that this cheetah can create lots of attraction for the tourists, and there’s a lot of tourists in Iran and that’s lots of money for you,” Dr Memarian says.

Delbar looks out toward the Alborz mountains in the distance. Because they’ve spent most of their lives in captivity, both her and Koushki will never return to the wild.

If all else fails, Dr Memarian plans to put more breeding cheetah couples in captivity, away from harm. But even that has its fair share of dangers. Koushki and Delbar mated once last year, but complications led to an abortion and subsequent infection of Delbar’s uterus.

Although fully recovered, Delbar may never breed again. For now, the two cheetahs are the flag bearers of the Iranian wildlife conservation effort, raising awareness for their species just by being alive.

Note: Medium seems to be doing something funky with my photos. They are darker and desaturated. Can’t seem to figure out why, so here’s a link to my original photos:

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