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The wildlife poachers who became wildlife protectors

Words: 5

Photos: Marjan Yazdi

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Extraordinary photos of the former illegal hunters who now protect vulnerable wildlife in Iran’s Masjed mountains.

In the mountains of Iran, men who once hunted animals for fun now risk their lives to protect them. 

This series of photos by Marjan Yazdi profiles the rangers of Masjed mountains. Earlier this year, Yazdi won the Jury Prize in 5’s Sustainability Champion Photo Contest with the above image of Mohammad Ali Banaei, the man who started the Masjed protected area in 2012. A factory owner by day, Banaei spent decades poaching, before using his own money to establish the protected area – the first of its kind in Iran – and persuading several other ex-poachers to join him. 

Iran’s government has established protected areas for wildlife, but there are not nearly enough rangers to police them, so it sought help from the private sector. When Banaei first set up the protected area, the total number of Iranian mountain goats, wild sheep and black-tailed gazelle was just 60. Now, numbers have reached 1200. He hopes to get animal populations stable enough that he can get permission to sell legal hunting permits.

Yazdi first overheard the story of these poachers-turned-protectors in a café. She ended up spending months in the mountains with them. The rangers face tough walks, steep climbs, long waits and the threat of violence.

Morteza Khonyagar, 37, was a poacher for years. One day five years ago, Khonyagar killed a mother goat, leaving behind its young. The same day he received news that his son had been in an accident, narrowly escaping with his life. He saw this as “a sign from God”. He quit poaching and became a ranger. Since these photos were taken he has stopped working as a ranger to care for his family.

Banaei, 61, and his brothers began poaching as teenagers. He describes it as an “addiction”. He would go to bed feeling guilty, but still wake up with the urge to go poaching again. For him and his family, poaching came from a love of nature, he says. It was a way of connecting to nature. But one day he realised there was more joy in protecting animals than killing them.

These two rangers are brothers who learned to poach from their father, before becoming rangers. “The poachers in this area are mostly raised in families who have done poaching for entertainment,” says Yazdi. “Their fathers did it, and they learned.”

Khonyagar and other rangers await a message from Banaei. Yazdi, who accompanied them for a year, says: “I worked with them for a year and I was the happiest person on the Earth. When I feel down I go back to the mountains to spend time with these people, and I feel better after. I really feel they’re touched with nature.”

The rangers often find remains of goats and rams in the mountains that have been killed by poachers. A disease outbreak also killed many animals in the area, but even so, the rangers’ efforts are paying off, and numbers are rising.

Mohammad Ali Banaei is pictured here in his home, which is decorated with trophies from his hunting days. Yazdi says: “I know of people in other places who work as rangers for their own purposes – they protect the area just so they can go poaching there. But Mohammad Ali Banaei is actually protecting the area. I believe he wouldn’t have the same impact as he does right now if he wasn’t carrying the weight of regret on his shoulders.”

Rangers are particularly alert around sunset, which is when poachers often come down from the mountains with their kill. The decision to give up poaching and become wildlife rangers is deeply personal for many of those who have done it, says Yazdi. “There’s so much judgement towards people who poach or hunt. I can see that they judge themselves, because they see other people judge them.”

As well as goats, sheep and gazelle, the mountains are also home to predators such as wolves and foxes. Here, a ranger carries the skull of a ram which was eaten by a wolf after being shot by a poacher.

Yazdi says: “I drive with [Mohammad Ali] sometimes. He stops and collects the garbage he sees on his way. He also trims the trees and makes water reservoirs for animals that have to walk a long way for water. I see that they really care about nature.”

Rangers spend the night in mountain stations like this one. They can sometimes spend hours waiting for news from other rangers, or from locals who have heard gunshots. Winter nights can be bitterly cold out here.

Yazdi says of her ranger friends: “These people care about the environment because they live in it. And they regret their path [of having been poachers]. They have that big regret inside themselves. They believe that by protecting the wildlife, they can make up for the damage they did.”

How to help

Donate to WWF, which works to protect wildlife around the world. It has also spoken up in support of conservationists in Iran who have been jailed for alleged spying.

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