Amirhossein Khaleghi thought he knew danger. For much of the past 12 years, he had tracked Persian leopards and Asiatic cheetahs across the rugged splendor of Iran’s national parks. He would spend months at a time out in the bush, negotiating with sometimes hostile locals (such is his innate affability that he even persuaded notorious poachers to curtail their activities). He would spend months more setting up remote cameras to record the endangered beasts themselves.
It was in large part through Khaleghi and his colleagues’ fastidious and unglamorous work that these big cats, celebrated emblems of Iranian pride, still exist in the country at all. By persuading herders to sell their grazing rights, they’d had some success in carving out sustainable, livestock-free habitats.
But in January 2018, Khaleghi, a tall, sweet-natured man with a wild mane of hair, suddenly found himself in the sights of a significantly more fearsome foe.
Accused of espionage by Iran’s security services, he was thrown into the notorious Evin Prison outside Tehran along with eight other prominent conservationists. One of them, Kavous Seyed Emami, soon died in suspicious circumstances. Four others have since been charged with “sowing corruption on Earth,” which can carry the death penalty. As of early 2019, they all remain in prison, confronted with no evidence other than outlandish confessions that appear to have been extracted under torture. For Khaleghi, a restless outdoorsman who’s roamed practically every corner of his country, the confinement alone must be agonizing.