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Jane Goodall Among Those Trying to Save American Conservationist, Colleagues Who Could Face Death in Iran

An American conservationist whose group was using cameras to monitor the Asiatic cheetah and other species could face the death penalty as Iran claims the wildlife workers were spying on the country's missile program.

Jane Goodall and other renowned scientists, conservationists and scholars have reached out to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on behalf of their colleagues, explaining the wildlife research and offering to act as expert witnesses.

Morad Tahbaz was among several current and former staffers of the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation arrested on Jan. 24 and 25; the others are Houman Jowkar, Taher Ghadirian, Sepideh Kashani, Niloufar Bayani, Amir Hossein Khaleghi, Sam Rajabi and Abdolreza Kouhpayeh. The foundation's Canadian chairman, Kavous Seyed-Emami, was also arrested; he died two weeks later in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison and his widow has been repeatedly detained and interrogated since.

According to a flyer for an address he gave at Yale, Tahbaz co-founded the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation in Iran and Persian Wildlife Foundation in the United States to help augment conservation hampered by small budgets and meager staff allocated by the Iranian government.

"There is a constant struggle between local communities’ desired use versus sustainable use of their natural resources. The Persian Wildlife Foundation focuses on exactly this issue in conjunction with helping some of the threatened fauna from being further diminished or even going extinct," says the group's website, listing their activities including research, on-the-ground conservation efforts, educational materials, and "organizing scientific exchanges between Iranian and international conservation specialists."

Tahbaz graduated from Colgate University in 1977 and got his MBA from Columbia University in 1983; he discovered his passion for nature after subscribing to National Geographic at age 9. He's listed as founder and partner of two U.S. investment firms. The Yale bio said he's a life member of the Wild Sheep Foundation, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and the Cat Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

According to an online research bio, he conducts research in climatology, remote sensing and hydrology, and his group worked on a project for conservation of the Asiatic cheetah. His Instagram account includes photos of his home in Weston, Conn., two black labs at home, travels in Costa Rica and Madrid, and shots of nature in Iran -- including close-up photos of big cats and ibex caught on trap cameras set up by his foundation in Khar Turan National Park.

On Nov. 28, according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran, Iran Prosecutor General Mohammad Javad Montazeri claimed that "for some years, the U.S. and Israel have been infiltrating sensitive and vital locations in the country through their agents in the environmental field." He added that the environmentalists' cameras were installed "so they could supposedly watch some animal."

The attorney representing Rajabi told the human-rights groups that Tahbaz, Ghadirian, Kashani and Bayani had been charged with “corruption on earth,” a charge that can carry the death penalty.