Hormoz Asadi, was the first Iranian member of the International Union of Conservation for Nature (IUCN) Cat Specialist Group. In 1997, in the first-ever report of its kind, he estimated there were about 100 Asiatic cheetahs remaining in Iran. Iranian cheetahs, have declined since my dad, Hormoz Asadi, passed away, which I comment on in a NatGeo article. Now, most daughters love their father, but there were many things I was not able to mention in the article, which make my relationship with my father unique. For example, when I was growing up in the US, my father was either rescuing animals or stuffing them. I mean, he would taxidermy roadkill to understand their bodies, while he earned his degrees in wildlife management.
That’s why I had a raccoon tail-hat, taxidermy squirrels, and instead of Barbie dolls, I had what was either a coyote or wolf skull. The fact that my dad either rescued or did taxidermy meant he could – bring animals back to life! My father was my very own Persian-version of St. Francis. My mother, who hated the dead things he brought home, disagreed.
Similarly, the awkward relationship of big cats, wildlife conservation and politics were part and parcel of my father’s doctoral dissertation: “Until about 100 years ago, the Asiatic cheetah was widely distributed throughout much of Asia. The distribution stretched from Palestine to Iran, and to the Arabian peninsula and eastward through Afghanistan to the Indian subcontinent. But over the years a combination of habitat conversion and killing eliminated the species from much of its range. At the turn of the century the only population that was known to have any long-term survival prospects was in Iran.”
To understand how my father influenced Asiatic cheetah conservation in Iran, I have to tell you about his work with India’s tigers and leopards. You see, it was in India that my dad transformed from St. Francis to the 007 of wildlife conservation because his work for TRAFFIC, WWF and WPSI was unparalleled in helping to stop wildlife poaching. For instance, one night in New Delhi, my father came home with a bloody rip running down the back of his blue denim shirt. Apparently, he was with two poachers, undercover, acting as though he wanted to buy some of their animal skins.
The poachers were going to show my dad, who was disguised as a collector of animal skins, their stockpile of animal parts. However, one of them suspected something was wrong. So, the poacher silently pushed a knife though the passenger seat, where my dad was sitting, which ripped my dad’s shirt as it ran down his back. Just as you would expect from a secret agent, my dad managed to get out of the car, and ended up arresting these poachers, too. Luckily, some of my father’s experiences are documented in the book, Through the Tiger’s Eye by Belinda Wright and Stanley Breeden, under an alias, Farook. The BBC documentary, Tiger Crisis, also documented my dad’s work, as well as featuring other great wildlife conservationists like Dr. George Schaller and Mr. Ashok Kumar.
Eventually, my dad’s undercover work led to “India’s largest seizure – 400kg of animal skins and parts – and the capture of Sinsarchand, who was the strongest animal trafficker in India at the time,” explained Mr. Vivek Menon, the founder of the Wildlife Trust of India, WTI. At that time, Mr. Menon was starting off his career as my father’s handler, which is special agent talk that means: the person who conducts your daily civilian tasks when you are undercover. It is true that catching poachers is dangerous work, so you have to be anonymous and fearless. As for me, I felt like I was chasing my father’s shadow around the world, while he chased poachers, and raced against time to save endangered species. In order to survive, I, too, had to develop some fearlessness.
My father lived in New Delhi at a house just beyond the Red Fort, and after a few months of living with him, I understood how bad things were for the tiger – with 3000 or so tigers left in the wild. “Dad, are you really going to be able to save the tiger from extinction? “No,” he said while shuffling through some very disturbing pictures of dead tigers and leopards in the reports that he still needed to investigate. I was stunned. “So, why are you putting your life at risk?” He looked up at me from the report for he must have sensed my anger. “People have to know that we tried. That conservation is needed, and there are people who believe in it.”
After his six-years of 400 kg animal-parts bust-making, BBC documentary-worthy wildlife tracking, to help the big cats across India, my had become a respected expert in his field. By 1994, my father’s well-developed, sharper than a poacher’s knife instincts, honed in on Asiatic cheetahs in his homeland, Iran. He had a project with the UNDP to study the decline of the cheetah in Iran, so began to document all Asiatic cheetah sightings from 1985-1997, that is in report still cited today (Asadi, 1997). My father spearheaded and lead the first-ever international Conservation of the Asiatic Cheetah Program, CACP, and Iranian Department of the Environment was in support. By 2006, Dr. Masoumeh Ebtekar, the former Minister of the Environment, and current Vice President for Women and Family Affairs, appointed my father as their official wildlife advisor.
Thousands of Asiatic cheetahs existed from Iran to India. Yet today, big cat expert Dr. Mohammad Farhadinian (Farhadinian, 2007) said 35, or less, remain. Or less? Let’s think about this; so in the the late 1800s-early 1900’s we had thousands of Asiatic cheetahs, but by 1997, Asiatic cheetahs declined to 100, and today, there are less than 35!? Unfortunately, people still legitimate the killing of apex predators because, in part, those people are struggling economically.
By the time he was head of the CACP, my dad, Hormoz Asadi had also transformed from 007 to a stable, loving father to me, and to Marita, the 8 lb cheetah cub he miraculously saved and raised in Pardisan Park zoo, Tehran, Iran. There are many other things my dad did for wildlife, such as develop the Caspian Seal Center in Iran, and mentor student and teach the first-ever wildlife conservation-specific courses at Tehran Azad university. For all these reasons and more, the Department of the Environment recently dedicated a textbook The Environment of Iran, to my father. They also gave him a lifetime achievement award. The award-winning videographer, Kazem Bayrambaksh, dedicated two films about Iranian wildlife to my dad and others who lost their lives in service to nature. Rangers made animal wildlife drinking posts throughout Iran, under his name. Our last name, Asadi, when translated means, from the lion.
Unfortunately, lions became extinct in Iran in the 1930s, and my father still had a lot to do when he was in a car accident that took his life in 2008. To be fair, be it due to catching poachers in India or tracking animals in Iran, my dad had always told me about the risks involved with his work.
Now, I do not catch poachers, I am not an IUCN Cat Specialist, and there’s no way I could drive in Iran. Yet, let me shift to what I can do, educate. For instance, back in 1994, my dad began educating people about habitat protection and said animals needed special wildlife crossings, so they could avoid roaming through the human inhabited areas. He also wanted to find ways to help rural people financially, so they would not need to hunt same deer and rabbits that cheetahs and leopards like to feast on. This way, he explained, the big cats would not be forced to hunt livestock. The truth is, I am but a drop in his ocean of strength, guile and keen instincts. Yet, I hope to carry on some of his legacy in my own ways, and if anyone should wonder why – it is not because I am positive that we can save the Asiatic cheetah. I will do it because “people have to know we tried,” and, I hope you have your own ways and reasons to join me.