SFYou: Pourya Sardari

Iranian Master’s candidate talks key environmental and political issues in his nation

PHOTO: Artin Bakhan / Unsplash

By: Clarence Ndabahwerize, Staff Writer

Content warning: mentions of violence against women.

Pourya Sardari is an international student from Mashhad in Iran’s Razavi Khorasan province. Sardari is currently pursuing a Master’s in Biological Sciences and recently made a class presentation about his research on the illegal trade of wildlife in Iran. The Peak sat down with Sardari to talk about his work, as well as the current situation in the country following the death of Mahsa Amini.

“First of all, in Iran we don’t have any solid research to try to pinpoint what are the primary drivers of the illegal trade,” started Sardari. “It’s a complex issue and there are different factors that can motivate the illegal trade. Some would say that it’s poverty, with people using the trade as a source of income,” he added. However, Sardari mentioned that socioeconomic status might not be the driving factor to engage in the trade, highlighting its complexity as a national issue. 

“It’s not one of the priorities for the government to look into this, not just the government but the Department for Environment in Iran.” This body’s main purpose is to protect and safeguard Iran’s environment; from the country’s biodiversity, to its protected areas. Sardari added that existing environmental problems in Iran, such as water shortage and pollution, are perceived as more important than illegal wildlife trade. “They have to invest resources to learn about the trade and learn about this issue before they can take action,” he mentioned. The task though, is monumental.

Sardari stressed that the trade is not a new phenomenon. “We have the physical traditional marketplace, which I would say is historical. People have been trading for thousands of years.” The trade’s proliferation both in Iran and globally has been aided by the rise of digital marketplaces. The boom in global internet use and connectivity has led to its increased popularity, enabling it to grow in the digital sphere.

By Sardari’s account, traditional and geographical factors influence the trade, with falcons being of particular interest to buyers. “In Iran and in the Middle East, falconry is part of the tradition there. So birds of prey are one of the targets of the illegal trade and you would see them more frequently being traded.” Adding on, he highlighted the global popularity of reptiles and amphibians, some of which are endemic to Iran, making them very popular amongst buyers globally. Nonetheless, the continued trade of these animals is unsustainable.

To curb the trade, Sardari said that understanding its dynamics was key. He noted the need for evidence-based research into the values and motivations driving it. Such an approach, in his opinion, will open the doors for public education and spur behavioural change in communities. “Investing in and educating people so they can enforce legislation may be a good way, but we first need to understand the trade.” 

When asked if regional support for this endeavour could be secured, Sardari cited Iran’s current geopolitical isolation as an obstacle. “Because Iran’s connections with other countries and conservation organizations are really limited, it’d be hard to do some work.” Undeterred, local conservationist groups like the Iranian Cheetah Society fight on. They protect Iran’s environment and wildlife, as well as raise awareness. He mentioned that such groups always need more support for resources and funding for their projects. 

Sardari believes that a vacuum of political will on the subject is due to government priorities rarely being aligned towards conservation. “Governments want to develop. They want to use their resources. It’s always this trade-off, this conflict, between development and sustainability.” 

Safeguarding and protecting the rights of the people is an ongoing  issue for the government of Iran. In the past years, the government has used lethal force on protestors and incarcerated peaceful activists. In September 2022, a young Iranian woman named Mahsa Amini died in a Tehran hospital following her arrest by the nation’s morality police; a unit of Iran’s police whose main objective is to enforce an Islamic dress code, mainly targeting women. Pourya opened a class presentation with a tribute to her. “It didn’t just affect me, it affected the whole Iranian community. It affected the whole world, I’d say.” Since the death of Mahsa Amini in September, there have been ongoing protests in Iran to end the “decades-long authoritarian rule of the country’s top clerics.” 

“When I heard the news, I was devastated, I was sad. I had a mix of emotions. I was angry. She was an innocent young woman who died.” Sardari said that in recent years, the institution has been emboldened in its suppression, with its main targets being Iranian girls and women. According to Iran International, at least 402 protestors have been killed by security forces and 16,813 have been arrested since the protests began back in mid-September. The Volunteer Committee to Follow-Up on the Situation of Detainees has been able to identify at least 1,600 prisoners including “969 ordinary citizens, 393 students, 145 civil activists, 42 journalists, 40 political activists, 38 women’s rights activists and 26 attorneys.” Sardari added, “It’s a violation of human rights.

“I was really surprised and happy to see all the Iranians and non-Iranians that came together in solidarity with what happened to Mahsa,” said Sardari of the worldwide protests that followed her death. “I was really happy to finally see the Iranian community coming together. I was happy to see unity in the community.” 

Sardari mentioned that he himself hasn’t had a face-to-face interaction with the morality police but that his friends have to think about them. “It’s really stressful because I know from many of my friends who are mostly girls and women. They want to go out to have a peaceful evening with their friends, but they have to think about what to wear so that they don’t get arrested by the morality police.” 

When asked about the ideological differences between Iran’s young population and the country’s theocratic leadership, Sardari said, “It’s not a gulf, it’s an ocean [ . . . ] With innovation, technology, the internet, people are more connected and share ideas with each other, so that’s why there’s this gap.” 

Sardari added that the government seems to not want to accept the fact that the young generation is thinking differently and that they want different values in their lives. He concluded by saying that Iran’s young population is more accepting of diversity of thought, opinion, and expression.