Following the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anousheh Ashoori from prison in Iran in March, attention has turned to the third person who it was hoped would be freed at the same time: Morad Tahbaz.

A British-American businessman and philanthropist, Morad was part of a group of nine scientists and conservationists arrested at the beginning of 2018, accused of spying on military installations.

All nine had been involved in a project using remote cameras to survey Iran’s Asiatic cheetahs, a critically endangered subspecies of the African cheetah with a population that may be as low as just 50 individuals.

Building a camera trap on the Naybandan Wildlife Reserve, Iran. © Frans Lanting

Morad co-founded the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation in 2008, and he has also written a number of academic papers on the conservation and environmental challenges facing Iran.

Since their arrest, one of the conservationists – Kavous Seyed-Emami – died in custody in unexplained circumstances.

Though all deny the claims of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (usually known as the Revolutionary Guard or IRGC) that they'd been passing classified information to the USA, it’s still not exactly clear why they have been detained.

According to Eugene M Chudnovsky, co-chair of the Committee of Concerned Scientists and professor of physics and astronomy at the City University of New York, the Revolutionary Guard has been locking up environmentalists because they fear they may know, as a result of their work in remote areas, where radioactive and toxic material has been leaking out of installations and into the environment.

“They do not want environmentalists wandering around with their cameras recording clandestine activities,” Chudnovsky said in an email. “Tahbaz belongs to a sizeable group of dual-citizen prisoners that are held hostage for future swaps for Iranian officers arrested abroad,” he added.

Other sources have suggested the release of the prisoners is linked to a potential US-Iran nuclear deal that would see the lifting of economic sanctions.

Exactly, what this means for the Asiatic cheetah population is anybody’s guess. It’s almost certain that no monitoring work has been carried out over the past four years, and this can only have increased the fragility of an already fragile population.

Main header image: Naybandan Wildlife Reserve, Iran © Frans Lanting


James FairWildlife journalist