Hormoz is a Persian name. Derived from the word Ormozd (330 B.C), it refers to Ahura Mazda (the highest spirit in the Zoroastrian faith), and it is my father’s name.
And since our last name, Asadi, means “from the lions,” it’s fair to say my father encompassed the spirit of the lions. In fact, some might say, he was the last Persian lion.
Being in lockdown as a result of the Covid-19 Pandemic, I’ve had the time to do something I’ve never had the time to do before…Gathering articles, pictures, and books about my father, an Iranian environmentalist wildlife conservationist: Dr. Hormoz Asadi.
What I learned has impacted me for life: The last cheetahs and leopards of Iran are dying, just as the Caspian tiger and Asiatic lion already have. The majestic Asiatic lion that once stood on the Persian flag and stamped Iranian currency, was also enslaved by aristocrats, and killed for sport. By 1940, the last Asiatic lion was killed in Iran. The Qajar rulers were actually the original Tiger Kings, but today most Iranians don’t know that we even had Caspian tigers. Like all beautiful cats, Caspian tigers were also killed for their skin. The last remaining tiger in Iran was killed in 1940.
It is interesting that the Persian leopard, is the only big cat to have the title “Persian” in its name. Today, a mere 550 or so of these beauties remain. The potent cocktail of global sanctions, desertification, politics, and human-animal conflict, means Asiatic cheetahs and Persian leopards are on the same trajectory of their predecessors and will likely die. Their extinction may happen during our lifetimes, but it is not due to a lack of effort by some Iranian environmentalists like my father.
My father spent six years helping India save its tigers and leopards and was responsible for India’s largest-ever animal skin bust: 400 kg. The event was featured in newspapers and books, as well as a BBC documentary.
In 1997, the tear-stained face of the Asiatic cheetah called my father back to Iran, which lead to the rise of its conservation efforts. He returned to Iran as the only Iranian to have attained International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, Cat Specialist group member status. Vowing to help the last remaining Asiatic cheetahs (also known as the Iranian cheetah) on Earth, he embarked on a long-term study to trackAsiatic cheetahs, and estimated that only 100 existed in the world at that time–all in Iran. In contrast, in the early 1900s, thousands of Asiatic cheetahs existed.
This realization led my father to create the Asiatic Cheetah Conservation Project (ACCP) to conduct more research and raise international awareness. ACCP eventually morphed into the Conservation of the Asiatic Cheetah Project (CACP) and operated for about 20 years.
Unfortunately, my father passed away in 2008 while relocating Persian Fallow deer, another endangered species in Iran. Since then, sociopolitical, economic, and other changes in Iran have in essence crippled conservation efforts and worsened the cheetah’s already-vulnerable status.
My father’s lifetime of risk-taking, innovative thinking, academic studies, poacher-catching, fieldwork and animal rescuing eventually took his life. Yet, his hard work may not be able to save Asiatic cheetahs from extinction. Projects and agreements have fallen apart. As I write this piece, less than 40 Asiatic cheetahs, exist in Iran (Farhadinia et al., 2016). While the African species is vulnerable, too, without global sanctions and travel bans, which severely restrict wildlife workers, Africa’s estimated 7000 remaining cheetahs still have a chance.
When I put all the pieces together, I was swimming in thought over what my dad would have done if he were alive. I got the message on January 9th, 2021, on the 13th-year anniversary of my father’s passing: His MSc. thesis, An Environmental Perspective on Iran, which I had been trying to get my hands on for months, was in my email. As the daughter of an Iranian conservationist, I recall my dad having a copy of The Complete Fauna of Iran, the essential reference guide of over 1000 animals. What I did not know is that my father was advised by the author of the book, Dr. Eskandar Firouz (1925-2020), the former Minister of the Iranian Department of the Environment (DoE). Apparently, Dr. Firouz and my father had plans to create an environmental protection agency. By the time my father finished his MSc., in 1980, Iran was going through a revolution, and a subsequent war with Iraq. Needless to say, we did not return to Iran, and my father and Dr. Firouz were unable to actualize their plans.
These two men could foresee the environmental problems of the future: desertification, pollution, poor land management and too many roads running through national parks. In the 70s, they were trying to address the same problems that are killing the few remaining Asiatic cheetahs and Persian leopards now. When I realized that their efforts were part and parcel to how I ended up a foreigner in the US, yet a tourist in Iran, I found myself time traveling. This twist of fate not only impacted cheetahs and leopards, it impacted me because before embarking on all this research, I did not fully understand why my parents moved to the United States. My parents often spoke about their prestigious jobs, our loving extended family, and missed our apartment in Tehran. Would I have been better off growing up in Iran? What if there was an alternate reality, like in SciFi movies, in which Hormoz Asadi and Eskandar Firouz, did manage to implement their plan to create an environmental protection agency? Would Asiatic cheetahs still be on the brink of extinction? Would cars still be racing through national parks, killing Iran’s cheetahs?
These fragments of my father’s wildlife conservation work, which I had separated from my life story, were spread across dusty libraries, history books, foreign policy papers, wildlife conservationists, and hidden in my father’s field notes and thesis. By gathering these materials and piecing them together, with some help from my father’s colleagues and former students from Tehran Azad University, I am in the process of bringing awareness to his work and the work of his students and colleagues.
One such effort is helping Kazem Bayram, An international award-winning photographer and videographer—who worked closely with my father documenting conservation projects such as the Caspian seals, and the endangered Persian Fallow deer—raise money for his documentary about Iranian environmental issues. Iran has some of the most incredible and varied wildlife, landscapes and biodiversity: Using rare footage, Kazem is currently working to complete this project. Told through the eyes of Hormoz Asadi’s colleagues, former students, family and friends: The documentary explores Iran’s deserts, forests, lakes and seas, and aims to showcase the environment and wildlife of Iran. Featuring some of Iran’s wildlife conservationists, the film presents the viewer with beautiful footage from the rare mangrove forests of Qeshm Island that houses the endangered dugong, the Strait of Hormoz, the Caspian Sea with its unique species of seals, Touran and Miandasht that have the last remaining Asiatic cheetahs and Persian leopards, the salt water lake, Urmia, and more.
We not only have to strive to save these species, but we must document them, before they are gone. (To make a donation to this documentary project, click here.)
My latest effort, is focused on Marita, a cheetah cub my father saved in Iran. She eventually became the first Iranian cheetah in Tehran’s Pardisan Park zoo and inspired conservation for the rare cat. Marita stirred me so deeply that I began writing her life story as a young-readers book called: Marita the Cheetah. Once published, all the proceeds will go to Asiatic cheetah conservation, and is on course to be translated to Farsi as well.
You can learn more about my efforts to help save the cheetahs of Iran through education, writing, and collaborating with supportive people and organizations at: Asiatic Cheetah Trust.