From poachers to protectors, meet the rangers of Masjed Mountain

Thanks to these former hunters in Iran, some of the country's rare species are bouncing back.

Photograph by Marjan Yazdi
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As the sun sets over Masjed Mountain Protected Area in central Iran’s Yazd Province, rangers wait for the poachers to emerge. These unarmed men seek to convince poachers to change their ways, as they did themselves.
Photograph by Marjan Yazdi

From poachers to protectors, meet the rangers of Masjed Mountain

Thanks to these former hunters in Iran, some of the country's rare species are bouncing back.

Each evening as the sun sets over Masjed Mountain in central Iran, a group of volunteer patrolmen scan the craggy slopes for poachers making their way down with the day’s kill.

If the poacher is a first-time offender, the rangers will reason with him and try to convince him to change his ways. They’re well-placed to make a compelling case: the eight or so rangers of the Masjed Protected Area are all former hunters themselves.

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The Masjed Protected Area is a natural corridor for migratory species in central Iran’s Yazd Province and the mountains that lie between the country’s two largest deserts.

For Iranian-Canadian photographer Marjan Yazdi, who was born and raised in Yazd Province and studied in Canada from the age of 17, the unique story of the poachers-turned-protectors was one she was eager to document. She spent a year with the rangers, patrolling the hills each evening.

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The rangers of Masjed Mountain have worked for five years to combat poaching, which has boosted the numbers of all species that inhabit these semi-arid hills.

“These rangers were once the biggest threat, and now they’re the only protector to the species of Masjed Mountain,” she says. “Their past life has helped these rangers to do something thought to be impossible until now. [They have chosen] patience and kind gestures rather than threats and fines.”

FROM POACHER TO PROTECTOR

The semi-arid hills of Yazd Province lie between Iran’s two largest deserts, Lut and Dasht-e Kavir, and are home to wild sheep, goats, boars, and chukar partridges. Masjed sits between the Siahkooh and Marvast Protected Areas, providing a natural corridor for the area’s migratory species.

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A young mountain goat makes its way up the rocky slope to join the herd. Wild goat and mouflon sheep populations have grown significantly in the five years since the ranger scheme was implemented to combat poaching, from under 100 in total to over 2,000.

In these hardscrabble hills, the economic imperative can often win out: Poachers offloading ill-gotten game on the black market will often double their money. They target rams, goats, and other wildlife to sell the meat as a source of income or simply for the trophies and bragging rights.

The eight rangers who patrol the 55,000-acre Masjed Protected Area are employed by a local factory owner called Mohammad Ali Banaei, who manages the area and is working to obtain a licence for controlled hunting permits—a lengthy and bureaucratic process. It was he who dubbed this protected area masjed, which is Farsi for “mosque”: The mountain’s peak is said to resemble one, and this is how locals refer to it. (See photos of some of Iran's most beautiful and wild places.)

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A ranger named Ali peers around the corner of an outcrop, as he trails two poachers who have been spotted on Masjed Mountain. Poachers offload their ill-gotten kills on the black market, for both meat and trophies.

For one ranger, Morteza, the decision to retire his rifle and turn his efforts to conservation came following what he interpreted as a sign, a bid to rectify some cosmic imbalance.

“Every time he was up on the mountains to poach, he knew he would get caught….He says poaching was dragging him into a dark hole,” Yazdi explains. “One day he got news that his son choked on food….He was very close to losing him. He took it as a sign from the universe to stop poaching, and he never touched the gun to kill an animal again.”

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Morteza finally gave up poaching after a prolonged reckoning with its morality: For years, he says, he felt trapped in a cycle of negativity. He felt it was an all-consuming addiction, but becoming a ranger has lifted that burden.

In the wilds of Iran, the protection of species can be a matter of life or death: It’s estimated that some 120 rangers have lost their lives in the line of duty around the country, since the 1979 creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, according to the Tehran Times. The Masjed Protected Area has so far avoided fatalities.

“The rangers of the private areas are not allowed to carry guns…even for [self-defense],” Yazdi says.

Carrying out arrests and imposing penalties on poachers is the remit of police or government rangers. Legal protections for private rangers, whose role is limited to deterrence and calling the police, are weak to non-existent; however, a bill drafted by the Department of Environment and slated to go before the parliament some time in the near future would expand protections for rangers in cases of self-defense. There is also a push to recruit more rangers, in a further bid to tackle poaching.

On the other hand, Iran has also been cracking down on conservationists. Amnesty International documented citing 63 arrests of environmental activists in 2018, based on media reports. (Read more about the eight jailed cheetah researchers facing charges related to spying.)

LEGAL HUNTING

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Ali takes a break to pray on Masjed Mountain during his patrol.

In 2009, the Department of Environment privatized concessions and introduced a quota system for hunting. With species conservation languishing in policy limbo in the decades since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the privatization move has had mixed results.

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A ranger carries the severed head of a ram found on Masjed Mountain, left for dead by poachers then all but devoured by scavenging wolves.

For most of those managing such land concessions, the prevention of poaching and maintaining a solid base level of wildlife populations is integral to their commercial viability. Iran has long been a favored destination for big game mountain hunters, with international hunting enthusiasts paying tens of thousands of dollars for the officially sanctioned privilege of shooting, say, an Esfahan mouflon (Ovis Orientalis isphahanica), a subspecies of wild sheep found only in Iran, or a goitered gazelle to take home as a trophy mount. But sport hunters won’t plan expensive safaris to places where wildlife has been devastated by poaching.

“There's little doubt [sport hunting] can provide a major economic incentive [to protect wildlife] and provide tangible benefits to local communities, if well managed,” says Richard Thomas, of the wildlife trade monitoring organization TRAFFIC. Similar quota schemes, where a limited amount of hunting is allowed, are in effect in parts of North America, Europe, and Africa.

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The unarmed rangers watch and wait for poachers who climb down the mountain at sunset with their day's kills in tow. The rangers are ready to engage the poachers and try to convince them to stop—or detain them to hand over to police if they are repeat offenders. More than 120 rangers in Iran have died on the job in the last two decades, and a legislative push to afford them greater protections is afoot.

Take wild goats (Capra aegragus), for example. Their numbers had plummeted in the region because of poaching for meat, skins, and other parts. But they’re popular with sport hunters too, so landowners have made protecting them from poachers a priority, in order to attract legal hunters.

Five years ago, the population of wild goats and sheep on Masjed barely reached 100. In the five years the rangers have been patrolling, their numbers have grown to almost 2,000.

“Iran has a long way to go to reach a point where the environmental issues become the priority,” Yazdi says.

“However, I believe a country achieves growth and progress once its wildlife and environment has been appreciated. I came across these people who were devoting their lives to protecting the wildlife, and decided to be a part of their dedication by documenting it and in ideally exposing them to the world.”

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to include reference to Iran's crackdown on conservationists.
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.