Photographs courtesy Mehran Seyed-Emami
Photographs courtesy Mehran Seyed-Emami
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Why is Iran jailing these researchers?

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By Rachael Bale, ANIMALS Executive Editor

Today marks 1,002 days since eight researchers were imprisoned in Iran on charges related to their work studying the rare Asiatic cheetah. The scientists, who all worked for the Tehran-based Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation, were accused of spying on Iranian military installations for enemy countries. Their supposed weapons? Their camera traps—typically low-resolution, limited-range, remote-activated cameras—that scientists use to photograph human-shy wildlife.

There was a ninth researcher imprisoned, too. Kavous Seyed-Emami died in custody under suspicious circumstances several weeks after his arrest in January 2018.

The eight conservationists, whose imprisonments have been condemned by human rights and wildlife organizations around the world, reported that they were subjected to psychological torture and physical abuse to elicit false confessions. Nonetheless, they were sentenced to between four and 10 years in prison last year. (Pictured above, seven of them, clockwise from top left: Morad Tahbaz, Amir Hossein Khaleghi, Taher Ghadirian, Sam Radjabi, Houman Jowkar and Sepideh Kashani [pictured together], and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh.)

Photographer Frans Lanting, who captured the image below of the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah, worked with some of the scientists in 2011 and 2012 while on assignment for National Geographic. In an Instagram post on Tuesday, he noted that even from prison, they remain committed to their cause. “They convinced publishers in Iran to donate hundreds of books about wildlife and conservation to the prison library,” he wrote, and the two women of the group regularly give talks to inmates about conservation.

In March, Iran temporarily released tens of thousands of inmates in an attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but only Kouhpayeh was granted release and later pardoned. The others are held in the notorious Evin Prison, where overcrowding, a lack of medicine and sanitation supplies, and food shortages have been reported. At least one of the conservationists, Radjabi, tested positive for the coronavirus in April, his family said.

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Today in a minute

Legal, but deadly: What’s a city to do when pigeons are pooping everywhere? In the U.S., they may turn to Avitrol, a poisoned bait its manufacturer touts as painless. The seizure-like reactions of a few pigeons are meant to scare away the others. But Avitrol, animal welfare experts say, causes pain and unnecessary distress. Furthermore, multiple incidents of mass bird deaths suggest the product is often used to exterminate rather than repel birds, Nat Geo’s Rachel Fobar reports. Some local governments—including New York City; San Francisco; Boulder, Colorado; and Portland, Oregon—have banned it. Still, it remains the only EPA-approved avicide in the U.S.

Caribbean oil spill fears: A listing oil tanker carrying tens of millions of gallons of crude is raising concerns that it may sink or have to spill its cargo into the waters between Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago, NBC News reports. The Venezuelan-flagged Nabarima has been carrying its cargo since January, unable to deliver it under U.S. sanctions. It may be carrying seven times the fuel spilled by Alaska’s Exxon Valdez tanker in 1989, which caused an ecological disaster that blackened seas and shoreline over an area the size of Rhode Island.

The ‘rattiest cities’ in America: Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York rank as the top three American cities on the annual list by pest control company Orkin, based on the number of new rodent treatments. Makes sense, given their size. From Seattle to Buenos Aires, urban rat populations are rising—as much as 15 to 20 percent in the past decade, National Geographic magazine reported last year. Blame humans, New York rodentologist Bobby Corrigan tells us: “We don’t keep our nest clean.” Subscribers can read more here.

Is that cow organic? Undercover investigators have found practices leading to increased disease risk and cows being passed off as organic at a Texan auctioneer. The Guardian reports that in one video, an undercover investigator is told that removing a cow’s ear tags and replacing them with “back tags” that signal a cow is organic can as much as quadruple their meat sale value.

Your Instagram photo of the day

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Can I see your license and registration? A curious teenage male polar bear investigates the hood of photographer Katie Orlinsky’s truck in Kaktovik, an Inupiat village in Arctic Alaska. Every fall, after the community’s annual subsistence hunt of bowhead whales, more and more polar bears arrive to feed off the whale carcass scraps. Climate change has affected the migration and diet of polar bears, which have grown increasingly hungry as melting sea ice impairs their ability to hunt seals on the Arctic Ocean ice sheet. Scavenging so close to town brings a steady stream of tourists and scientists, and the bears are growing accustomed to interaction with humans—the world’s most dangerous predator. (Like this image? So did more than 600,000 people after it appeared on our Instagram page.)

Related: Whale meat helped polar bears survive past climate warming

The big takeaway

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Russian mystery solved: Last week, we reported on a mysterious die-off of marine wildlife off a beach known for surfing on Russia’s far-eastern Kamchatka Peninsula. Sea urchins, starfish, and red octopuses have washed up, and divers estimate that up to 95 percent of bottom feeders in some areas have died. Several bears eating the washed-up animals have been sickened, and surfers have had corneal burns from the water. While many initially suspected pollution, scientists now say the marine deaths probably have been caused by a massive algal bloom, Alec Luhn reports for Nat Geo. The area is home to endangered species such as steelhead trout and sea otters. (Above, a dead spotted seal that washed up on Khalaktyrskiy Beach.)

In a few words

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The last glimpse

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Dragon snakeheads: It’s not every day you discover a whole new family of fish. But researchers say they have, deep in underground waters of southern India. The whole family of fish, named dragon snakeheads, diverged from their closest relatives more than 100 million years ago, Nat Geo’s Douglas Main writes. “We think this is the most exciting discovery in the fish world of the last decade,” says ichthyologist Ralf Britz. (Pictured above: The Gollum snakehead, named after the subterranean character in Lord of the Rings, is one of two species in the newfound taxonomic family of fishes.)

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Jen Tse. Janey Adams and Gretchen Ortega helped produce this. Have an idea or a link? We’d love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . And thanks for reading.