Endangered big cats at risk of Karabakh’s landmine fields?

In the wake of the Karabakh conflict, what signs of the Persian leopard?

Commentary 

Rachel Brooks

May 3, 2021 

“Portrait of the male Persian leopard” by Tambako the Jaguar is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Persian leopards, known also as the Caucasian Leopard, have been cited in the Caucasus and Iran over the last few years. As the Karabakh conflict reached its shaky and bitter ceasefire status, and Azerbaijan liberated its occupied territory, many questions were raised. The world marveled at the massive task ahead of the people of Azerbaijan, as the tedious process of restoring the ghost cities of the Karabakh loomed. 

What of the big cat that takes its name from the region? With cities left to yawn at their emptiness for 30 years under wartime occupation, what will become of these endangered big cats? Will Azerbaijan now be able to monitor and preserve a species that Iranians have been convicted for attempting to preserve? 

In 2021, Persian leopards were reportedly “critically endangered” and yet, they still endure in the wild. Persian leopards were photographed in the heights of Firuzkuh, Tehran Province. This was reported by a local media service on April 20. Earlier in April, Persian leopards were reportedly spotted in Bamu National Park, in the Fars province, which was filmed by a local media agency. Persian leopards have also been reported in Iraq.

In 2018, researchers of the Cat conservation in Iran project researched whether big cats migrated in transboundary formations between Iran and Azerbaijan to its north, citing this as a vital part of cat conservation.

The risks to humans from landmines are profound (see below panel.) It raises the question if the critically endangered big cats of Iran and other regional endangered species could have found a home among the ruins of Karabakh. If they have, then what risks do the landmines of the region present to the species that may have found a habitat among the ruins of the warzone? 

 

Azerbaijan liberated part of its shared boundary with Iran at the close of the 44-Day War of the Karabakh. Azerbaijan must work to clear the region of landmine ordinance, and other critical dangers to civilians. As Asiatic cheetahs and Persian leopards again are spotted in the regions to the south, conservationists who study the transboundary migration of big cats are left with another problem, namely navigating the risk of casualty from the landmines to researchers and to the endangered species themselves.

In 2019, an Iranian court condemned six conservationists on charges of “collaborating with an enemy state.” This state was the United States, and the reason was the preservation of majestic creatures, among them the Persian leopard, “critically endangered” Asiatic cheetah, and Baluchistan bears. The trial of the conservations stirred the ire of the world, wrote The Washington Post.  Defense lawyers were not present at the trial, and the conservationists were sentenced to prison. 

With the Iranian regime restricting research and conservation monitoring of big cats through the arrest of researchers, stakes for preservation rest on cooperation with neighboring nations. Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to see heated post-war rhetoric. The effort to make the Karabakh safe from landmines moves slowly, as Armenia has not yet given the maps of the landmine planting areas to the Azerbaijani effort of landmine removal. With the Karabakh transformed into a wilderness, endangered species are prone to find their way among the ruins, and likewise to stumble over landmines, setting off chain reactions in the habitats potentially formed among the wreckage of forsaken cities.

Research by the Ecological Association of America determined that Persian leopards have a potential for “viable metapopulation” in the Caucasus and northern Iran, “but only if major conservation actions are taken towards reducing persecution and restoring prey.” With the looming threat of landmines in the Karabakh, the challenges of restoring prey are increased, as prey animals likewise find themselves at risk of being killed by lingering war ordinance.