The king loved lions, regardless of whether they were wild or kept in captivity. He owned several of his own, which he kept in one of the first zoos in Iran, in east Tehran, which had been opened by his father. One day King Mozaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar, who ruled Persia from 1896 to 1907, decided to pay his lions a visit. But only a few days before, one of the lions had died. The zoo’s manager was scared, not wanting to disappoint the king, so he swept the truth under the carpet. He ordered one of the zoo employees to enter the cage and hide under the dead lion’s fur. He was given instructions to move a little if the king approached the enclosure, just enough to give the impression that the lion was stirring. In the end, the royal visit ended sooner than expected, the king did not visit the lion cage, and the man took a deep sigh of relief. Then, suddenly, while he was still under the lion’s fur, a leopard approached him. The employee froze. He was cornered; there was no means of escape. “Hey, how much did you get for this job?”, the leopard asked, as he unwrapped himself from his fur.

It does not really matter whether this story is true, of course. It showed then, as it does now, that some people are willing to do almost anything — certainly lie — to impress others and get what they want. 

Recently, there has been a 21st-century spin on this tale of false impressions and elaborate schemes.

It took place at Tehran's Eram Zoo, where the current managers were keen to boost their image in the public eye. At a press conference in April, they announced that they had secured the transfer of two Persian lions from Germany, though they provided no specific details.

Some days after the press briefing, the CEO of Eram-e- Sabz, the corporation that owns the zoo, told a newspaper in Tehran that the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums (EAZA) would be assisting the zoo with the transfer of the lions, which belonged to an endangered and protected subspecies. “EAZA has promised to provide two Persian lions for Tehran Zoo, free of charge”, Iraj Jahangir said, “under one provision: that the cage for these lions is to be built to EAZA standards.”

Six months earlier, Jahangir had stated the same thing: that the cages must first be approved by the EAZA. According to him, experts from the association were supposed to have traveled to Iran to verify that the enclosure met their required standards. But so far, EAZA has not sent any staff to Tehran.

“We are now a member of the European Endangered Species Program (EEP),” a veterinarian for the Tehran zoo, Iman Memarian, announced at the same press conference. The EEP manages endangered species' populations, and is run under the supervision of the EAZA.

Memarian and Eram Zoo both published a letter bearing the EAZA logo and signed by Benegt Holst, the chairman of the EAZA’s EEP Committee, on their Facebook pages in a bid to show the Iranian public (and animal rights activists, who had asked some questions) that the recent announcements were undeniably true and that the transfer was being carried out along official lines. Iranian media also published the letter, which stated that the Tehran Zoo was participating in the endangered species project, claiming it was an authentic document that proved that the transfer of the lions was going ahead.

But the letter itself seems fishy. First of all, it is ambiguous, and does not mention the agreement to transfer the lions to Tehran, either explicitly or implicitly. Secondly, though the term “Asiatic lion” is mentioned twice in the letter, when it is, the term’s font appears to be different from the font that appears throughout the rest of the letter. And finally, although the given name of the Tehran Zoo veterinarian is stated at the top of the letter, the actual recipient is José Dias Ferreira, who was appointed as coordinator for the Persian Leopard European Endangered Species Project for 2013.

To inquire about the authenticity of the letter, IranWire contacted the EAZA. The response was short  and shocking. “I herewith would like to confirm that this letter was not sent out by the EAZA Executive Office”, wrote Katharina Herrman, the executive coordinator and coordinator of conservation for the association. “Tehran Zoo has not been approved as a non-EAZA EEP member to participate in the European Endangered Species Program for the Asiatic lion.”

The question is this: why did the EAZA contradict what had been publicized in the Iranian media? Why would it deny that the letter was genuine? “I have no idea what are you talking about,” Memarian —  who was the veterinarian in charge of corresponding with EAZA and those working on EEP — said when I asked him about the EAZA denial. “We sent all the maps and supporting documents to them. According to the last communication, EAZA’s experts were due to arrive in Tehran by the end of May to check the lions cage.”

The Eram-e-Sabz CEO Iraj Jahangir told me that the annual EEP participation fee had already been paid and the Tehran Zoo is officially recognized as a participant in the Endangered Species Program. “I can show you all documents,” he said. “I have no comment until Memarian comes back to work. He is away on vacation right now. Nevertheless, I am sure that the zoo veterinarian has a very good reason that will explain this  incident.”

“No matter what happens,” Jahangir said, “whether the EAZA collaborates with us and helps us acquire the two lions or not, I will certainly bring two Persian lion cubs into the Tehran Zoo.”

But from where, and how? His response was obscure and vague, and I was skeptical. It suggested to me that the zoo might even consider wildlife trafficking. Maybe it had been involved in such practices before? Jahingir has evidently denied any engagement in illegal bargains.

Yet more doubt arose when I discovered that the Tehran Zoo and the Eram-e-Sabz corporation belong to the Islamic Revolution Mostazafan Foundation, one of the richest organizations in Iran, and under authority of the Supreme Leader. The foundation is not required to pay any tax. Iran’s executive branch is not allowed to make any enquiries about the business activities of the foundations.

So just how is it that Tehran Zoo will come to acquire two Persian lions? I wonder.


Related articles:

A Glimpse Behind Bars

Man is a Beast to Man: Human and Animal Rights in Iran


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