New York, NY – In November, as reported by the Washington Post, eight conservationists from the non-profit Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF) were convicted by an Iranian court of collaborating with an “enemy state.” In the weeks that followed, international news outlets and a former employee of Panthera spoke out against these convictions while analyzing Panthera’s connection to PWHF. Although we have wanted to address this relationship and join the global conservation community in condemning the aforementioned convictions for months, we were advised by relevant authorities to refrain from speaking out publicly. However, in light of ongoing speculation in the media about Panthera’s role in this situation, our leadership has made the decision to issue a statement. It represents Panthera's position on these convictions and seeks to clarify and correct statements made by members of the media and public regarding the organization’s connection to PWHF. This statement only represents the views of Panthera, the global wild cat organization.
On November 20 and 23, 2019, eight conservationists affiliated with the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF) were found guilty of collaborating with an "enemy state" by a court in Tehran for alleged spying apparently related to their use of camera traps to study the Critically Endangered Iranian cheetah and other species. Panthera’s leadership and staff were profoundly saddened by this news and wish to take this opportunity to join the global conservation community in strongly condemning these criminal convictions while clarifying our relationship with PWHF.
In February 2018, Panthera’s leadership was advised by relevant authorities to refrain from speaking publicly about the conservationists’ arrests and our relationship with PWHF. Solely because of this request, Panthera has not commented on the situation or responded to questions from the media about it. However, now that the trial has concluded, and correspondence from PWHF to Panthera has been made public, we feel it is our duty to fully address both the nature of our relationship and speculative claims made by members of the media.
Panthera’s Relationship with PWHF:
Panthera provides financial, equipment and technical support to dozens of conservation organizations across the world. Our relationship with PWHF began in 2008. As is often the case in wildlife conservation, the initial introduction was facilitated by staff members who had collaborated with PWHF in previous roles – including in particular Dr. Luke Hunter, former Panthera President and Chief Conservation Officer. Dr. Hunter was Panthera’s primary interface with PWHF from the time he joined us from Wildlife Conservation Society, where the relationship with PWHF had begun. As an organization studying and conserving the Critically Endangered Iranian cheetah with an excellent reputation, and Panthera being strictly apolitical in its mission to save wild cats wherever they are to be found, it was well within Panthera’s scope for Dr. Hunter to continue this relationship with PWHF. Our relationship with PWHF was narrow and centered on supplying camera traps. Our last material interaction occurred in early 2017 when PWHF purchased 45 camera traps from Panthera, a vendor relationship Panthera has with many conservation organizations across the world. Panthera also provided periodic technical and scientific advisement to PWHF in its own conservation activities.
The Letter from PWHF to Panthera and Ensuing Events:
We can confirm, as reported in various outlets, that on October 17, 2017, a letter was sent by PWHF to Dr. Hunter. The letter’s purpose was to distance PWHF from Panthera and cited remarks by the Panthera’s Founder and Chairman regarding Iran and his support for an organization called United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) as the reason. It should be noted that Dr. Kaplan made these remarks as a private citizen, not in his official capacity as Chairman of the Board of Panthera.
This letter has recently been provided to the media by an unknown third party and was published on November 14, 2019, in an article on Medium by Dr. Kaveh Madani. Dr. Madani, who was himself imprisoned by the Iranian authorities in the past, served as the former Deputy Head of Iran’s Department of Environment and is currently a Henry Hart Rice Senior Fellow at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, Yale University.
Dr. Hunter did not pass the letter from PWHF to other members of Panthera’s senior leadership until February 12, 2018. Neither Panthera’s CEO at the time the letter was sent, the late Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, nor his incoming successor and current CEO, Dr. Fred Launay, nor the Panthera Chairman knew about the letter until that date. On February 10, 2018, The New York Times reported on the tragic death of Kavous Seyed-Emami, PWHF’s volunteer Managing Director, in an Iranian prison. Based solely on reading this article two days later, on February 12, 2018, Dr. Kaplan – who, as Chairman, was not directly involved with programming, including our engagement in Iran – asked Drs. Hunter and Launay if Panthera had any relationship with Mr. Seyed-Emami. It was then that Dr. Hunter sent the aforementioned document to the current leadership group.
Immediately upon learning of the existence of the letter on February 12, 2018, Dr. Kaplan instructed Dr. Launay to freeze all travel to Iran by Panthera personnel and to contact any organizations with which we have worked to strongly advise that they do likewise if they had any staff in Iran. This was done promptly. We also contacted the relevant authorities to report this data. We considered making an official statement in support of the imprisoned conservationists, as well as to clarify our very limited relationship, but we were asked by the authorities not to comment on the case. It is for this reason – and this reason only – that Panthera has remained silent on this subject and not answered any questions from the media.
Given speculation in the media about Panthera’s role in this situation, our leadership decided after careful consideration to share these previously unreported details. Panthera will also take this opportunity to respond to the public comments made by former employee Tanya Rosen in traditional and social media outlets. As reported by The Intercept, Ms. Rosen, who helmed Panthera’s snow leopard program in Central Asia, claimed that she resigned from Panthera on the basis that she "'could no longer work for an organization that doesn’t care about the safety of their staff or their partners.'"
Contrary to her statements, Ms. Rosen did not cite the imprisoned conservationists, Panthera’s relationship with PWHF, or Dr. Kaplan’s remarks about Iran as a reason for her resignation in her letter dated August 14, 2018, or in other related internal communications. She instead referred to her disappointment at not being offered a leadership position during Panthera’s organizational restructuring process of mid-2018, as well as at Dr. Hunter’s imminent departure.
Since its inception in 2006, Panthera has created some of the most innovative and effective initiatives to save the world’s 40 species of wild cats – from the smallest sand cat to the largest tigers and lions. Many of the world’s leading felid zoologists and wild cat advocates have been educated, mentored, funded or employed by our organization. We are proud of the work that we do, every day, to protect threatened cats and their critical habitats. We take very seriously the safety of our staff and partners and pursuing our mission in an ethical and impactful manner. It is an unfortunate – at times tragic – reality that conservationists across the world regularly risk their safety to protect the lands and animals they love and that these risks extend far beyond the dangers of the natural world. We strongly condemn any acts that criminalize wildlife conservation or endanger conservationists the world over and especially in this case.