1. Current Status of Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Development in the Islamic Republic of Iran
1.1 Geographical and land characteristics
The Islamic Republic of Iran comprises a land area of 1.64 million km2. It lies in the northern part of the temperate zone, between latitudes 25o00’ and 39o47’ north and longitudes 44o02’ and 63o02’ east. The average altitude is over 1200 m. Iran is bordered by Turkmenistan, the Caspian (over 900 km of coastline), Azerbaijan, and Armenia in the north, Afghanistan and Pakistan in the east, the Sea of Oman and the Persian Gulf in the south (1850 km of coastline), and Iraq and Turkey in the west. The country features three main climatic zones:
Arid and semi-arid regions of the interior and far south, which are characterized by long, warm and dry periods, lasting sometimes lasting over seven months, and covering nearly 90% of the country. The annual precipitation rate in such regions varies between 30 and 250 mm.
Mediterranean climate (mainly in the western Zagros mountains, the high plateau of Azerbaijan, and the Alborz moiuntains), characterized by warm, dry summers and cool, damp winters, with annual rainfall between 250 mm and 600 mm, and covering about 5% of the land surface.
Humid and semi-humid regions (mainly in the Caspian, but also in west Azerbaijan and the southwest Zagros), with an annual precipitation rate of 600 mm to 2000 mm, also covering about 5% of the land surface.
The six main watersheds are: Caspian; Persian Gulf and Sea of Oman, Uroomiyeh; Markazi (Central); Hamoun (eastern); and Sarakhs (northeastern). The total annual volume of precipitation in these main basins (28-year average, 1969-1997) is estimated at 408 thousand million m3.
The relief and climatic variations have given rise to five biomes (see map and Annex 1),
Irano-Touranian (ITP): Arid and semi-arid plains and
1.2. Flora and fauna
Most of Iran is located in the Palaearctic realm and is considered the center of origin of many genetic resources of the world, including many of the original strains of commercially valuable plant species such as wheat, or medicinal and aromatic species. The southwest has some Afro-tropical features, while the southeast has some species from the Indo-Malayan sub-tropical realm.
Iranian habitats support some 8,200 species of plants (a conservative estimate), almost 1,900 of which are endemic. There are 12.4 million hectares of woodland, and some 8,900 hectares of Avicennia mangroves along the Persian Gulf coast. Field studies confirm the presence of over 500 species of birds and 160 species of mammals.
The wetlands of Iran are globally significant. Large populations of migratory birds winter at these wetlands or use them on their way to and from wintering areas in Africa or the Indian Sub-continent. The marshes of the south Caspian lowlands in Iran's northwest are particularly important for over 20 species of ducks and geese while the mud flats of the Persian Gulf coast are of critical importance for shore birds, gulls and terns. A variety of marine mammals is observed in the southern waters of Iran.
At present only protected areas afford reliable protection to Iran's biodiversity. In the unprotected areas biodiversity is diminishing rapidly; during the last 30 years 1.2 million hectares (40%) of Iran’s deciduous temperate forest have been destroyed. Rangelands and marginal farmlands are vulnerable to desertification, which is being exacerbated by soil erosion, over-grazing and over-exploitation of marginal farming areas. Coastal habitats and water resources are being degraded by oil, industrial and agricultural pollution and over fishing. In addition, large tracts of wetlands (called "hoor") were devastated during the eight years imposed war, and require restoration.
1.3 Aquatic living resources
In Iran, the availability of water sources, such as rivers, springs and lakes, determines the scope, location and the sustainability of all human activities. Iran, with two of the world's most arid deserts, Dasht-e-Kavir and Dasht-e-Lut covering nearly one third of the country, is one of the most arid regions of the world.
Marine living resources play an important role in the food security of the country. Many of the aquatic resources are exclusive to the region, and therefore are of great importance in the context of biological diversity. Seafood protein comprises the largest proportion of protein consumption in the world. In Iran, fish consumption has increased in the last two decades, but it is still below the average global consumption, at about one third of international rates. The marine environment of Iran comprises two distinct water bodies, namely, the Caspian to the north, and the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman to the south.
1.3.1 The Caspian
The Caspian, the largest lake in the world, is located in the northern part of Iran. The area of the Caspian is about 422,000 km2 with 6397 km coastline, of which more than 900 km is on the Iranian side. About 128 large and small rivers flow into the Caspian from Iran, the four largest being Sefidrood, Shalman, Shafarood, and Tonekabon. The highest salinity level, 12.7 parts per thousand (about one third of ocean salinity) is reached during the summer. The average water temperature in the coastal regions throughout the year ranges from 15.9oC to 17oC. Water temperature difference between the coldest area (in the northern parts of the Caspian) and the warmest area (in the south) is 4oC during winter and 16oC during summer.
Commercial fish: There are over 120 species of fish the southern Caspian, which are commercially divided into sturgeons and bony fishes. The bony fishes are further divided into kilka (small fish of the family Clupeidae) and other species. The main commercial species are as follows:
1.3.2 Southern waters
Two important water bodies are located along the southern borders of Iran. The Persian Gulf has an area of 232,850 km2, which stretches 930 km from the Arvandrood river to the Sea of Oman Sea, with an average width of 288 km. The maximum water depth reaches 280 m with an average of 38 m. The Persian Gulf is one of the warmest areas in Asia. The highest and the lowest water temperatures recorded are 40oC and 13.8oC. Although the salinity of the Persian Gulf is alleviated through its connection to the open sea, it is still more saline than the open sea and ranges between 37 to 50 parts per thousand.
The Sea of Oman is surrounded by Iran in the north, the Indian Ocean in the east, and Oman in the southeast. The water temperature is lower than in the Persian Gulf, because of the water depth and its connection to the open sea. The highest and lowest surface water temperatures recorded are 23oC and 19.8oC respectively.
Different species of marine mammals are observed in the southern waters of Iran, including blue whale Sibbaldus musculus, fin whale Balaenoptera physalus, sperm whale Physeter catodon, humpback whale Megaptera musculus, common dolphin Delphinus delphis, black finless porpoise Neomeris phocaenoides, and dugong Dugong dugon.
In order to ensure national food security, and to compensate the regulatory limitations in fish catch, Iranian Fisheries Organization(“Shilat”) has tried to increase the production of commercially valuable species. Concentrated efforts to develop aquaculture throughout the country were initiated in the 1980’s. In 1992 fish production in inland water bodies and fish farms was about 12% of total fishery production. One of the recent activities of Shilat is propagation of shrimp culture along the southern coasts, as well as hatcheries to produce shrimp larvae such as Penaeus merguiensis and P. semisulcatus. Lack of regulations regarding site selection and effluent characteristics is one of the concerns of environmental officials. The effluents of fish farms, carrying large loads of organic matters and in some cases chemicals, adversely affect aquatic resources including bottom vegetation in riverbed or coastal waters.
Iran has more than 3,450 rivers (including seasonal rivers). Within the six main watersheds there are 37 major river basins. The most important (with their average annual flow) are: Karoun River (Persian Gulf) 14,619 million m3; Dez (Persian Gulf) 8,825 million m3; Sefidrood (Caspian) 6,491 million m3; Aras (Caspian) 2,317 million m3; Zayandehrood (Markazi) 1,473 million m3; Atrak (Sarakhs) 877 million m3; Hirmand (Hamoun) 142 million m3; the inflow to Lake Uroomiyeh (from all rivers) is 5,971 million m3. These figures show clearly that the head of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian receive the highest flows, while the other four watersheds receive relatively low inflow. Rivers are natural habitats for aquatic species, small animals, water birds and a specialized flora.
1.4 Coastal regions
Coastal regions have important economic values. Many infrastructure facilities, such as harbors and power plants are constructed in these regions. A large variety of plant and animal species is observed in the coastal ecosystems. Mangrove forests are unique coastal wetlands, important fish as habitats. Marine turtles, many on the endangered list, live in these ecosystems. The following marine turtles have been observed in Iranian waters: Green Turtle Chelonia mydas, Leatherback Turtle Dermochelys coriacea, Olive Ridley Turtle Lepidochelys olivacea, Loggerhead Turtle Caretta caretta, Hawksbill Turtle Eretmochelys imbricata, and Black Turtle Chelonia aqaziz (recently reported for the first time).
Agriculture, utilizing biological resources of various ecosystems, has an intimate relation with biological diversity. Thirty three million hectares of the land area are classified as arable, however only 18.5 million hectares are under cultivation, ten million hectares of which are dependent on rainfall. Annually irrigated crops occupy 5.7 million hectares, and 1.6 million hectares are permanently irrigated. There is potential to increase the amount of irrigated crops to nearly twice the present level, but this has not been achieved, due to a variety of limitations and problems including shortage of water and serious threats of soil degradation.
In spite of the climatic diversity and genetic variety of plants in Iran, most improved agricultural plants are grown from imported varieties, which are susceptible to pests and diseases, resulting in excessive use of pesticides. It is estimated that 1000 plant varieties have been lost because of lack of comprehensive management policies. With over 120000 livestock units in the country, only 30% of the national meat consumption are produced domestically. The reasons include: population growth, weakening of traditional rangeland and livestock management systems and their capacity to supply expanded markets, the low added value in livestock production, the lack of balance between rangelands and modernized methods of animal breeding. For example, instead of making better economic use of 20 million tons of manure produced yearly, chemical fertilizers are used. Despite demonstrable detrimental environmental effects, consumption of chemical fertilizer increased from 300 tonnes in the mid 1950s to 700,000 in 1978 and 2,500,000 tonnes in 1992, but dropped back to 2,200,000 tonnes in 1996, possibly for economic rather than environmental reasons.
1.6 Forests and rangelands
Today forest areas cover some 12.4 million hectares (about 7.5% of the area of the country) It has been estimated that this figure was about 18 million ha. 40 years ago. The forests of Iran can be classified in five zones as follows:
Rangelands comprise some 54.8 % of the total land area of the country, covering more than 90 million hectares. They play the most important role in soil protection. The condition of 16% of the rangelands is excellent, whereas 66% are in favorable to medium condition and 18% are in poor and degraded form. They can be classified in three types:
Wetlands occupy the transitional zone between permanently wet and generally dry environments, sharing characteristics of both aquatic and terrestrial environments but not belonging exclusively to either. Under the Ramsar Convention (adopted at the Iranian city of Ramsar on the Caspian coast in 1971), wetlands are defined as “areas of marsh, fen, peatland or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six meters”. The Convention also provides that they “may incorporate riparian and coastal zones adjacent to the wetlands, and islands or bodies of marine water deeper than six meters at low tide lying within the wetlands”. Therefore, wetlands are everywhere, and it is probably simplest to think of the Convention as having an interest in the management of all water ecosystems (whether permanent or temporary, natural or artificial) which are not deep marine waters. Iran has designated 20 sites, covering about 0.7% of the country for the Ramsar “List of wetlands of international importance”(Annex 1).
1.8 The national protected area system
The protected area and reserve system provides the core areas for biodiversity conservation. This reserve system is not sufficient in itself for long-term conservation, and must be harmonized with conservation efforts in other areas and land-uses. In Iran, areas protected by the Department of Environment cover 8.2 million hectares (about 5% of the land area, Annex 1). The Department of Environment’s goal is to increase this proportion to 10% of the national land area. Limited tourism and research occurs in these areas. Details of the four categories of protected area managed by the Department of Environment are given below.
In addition the Forests and Rangelands Organization of the Ministry of Jehad-e-Sazandegi manages 131 reserves with a total area of over 111,000 ha. Of these, 19 are Natural Forest Parks, 91 are Forest Reserves, and 21 are Natural Parks. Furthermore, the other ministries also manage a number of protected areas.
1.8.1 National Parks (11 sites)
These represent some of the most outstanding examples of nation’s geological, ecological, historical, archaeological and scenic features. Management includes minimum manipulations necessary for ecological conservation. National Parks and National Nature Monuments serve dual functions of conservation and ecotourism, and are typically selected as outstanding examples of biodiversity/ecology, and geological/scenic resources that are of national and global importance. In recognition of their dual function, some park infrastructure is constructed, but under strict conservation and architectural control. The total area is 1.3 million hectares covering 0.79% of the national land surface.
From both ecological and economic perspectives, the most important national parks are Golestan and Uroomiyeh. Both enjoy a wider range of ecosystems than the other parks of Iran, and have potential for increased tourism. Golestan is located in the northeast of Iran along the Caspian, and is characterized by temperate to humid deciduous and hardwood forests, while Uroomiyeh, one of the largest deep saline lakes in the world, is located in the province of Western Azarbaijan.
1.8.2 Wildlife Refuges (25 Sites)
There are 25 wildlife refuges, which currently cover about 1.9 million hectares, 1.16% of the national land area. These habitats are protected for their native wildlife. Hunting, fishing and capturing of wildlife are prohibited. These areas contain public-use areas in which farming and grazing are permitted.
1.8.3 Protected Areas (47 sites)
Protected areas support representative ecosystems with nationally significant wildlife, but do not justify the intensity of management of a fully-fledged national park. These are areas with single or multiple use objectives, with a total area of 5.3 million hectares, 3.23% of the national land area. They may cater for ecological, scientific, economical, educational, cultural and recreational interests. Human settlements are often present, and it is proposed to establish integrated management plans governing the present human settlement, grazing and agriculture.
Five rivers, namely Chalus (Caspian watershed), Karaj, Lar, Sardab and Jajeroud (all in the Central watershed) are also protected by DoE.
1.8.4 National Nature Monuments (5 sites)
These are small areas, with unusual phenomena of scientific, geological, historical and/or natural history interest. Management includes maintaining certain species or special features.
1.8.5 Biosphere Reserves (9 sites)
Biosphere Reserves are areas of terrestrial and coastal/marine ecosystems, or a combination thereof, which are internationally recognized within the framework of UNESCO/MAB (Man and Biosphere) program. Biosphere Reserves should preserve and generate natural and cultural values, through management that is scientifically correct, culturally creative and operationally sustainable. All Biosphere Reserves enjoy protection under one of the national protected area categories listed above. The Islamic Republic of Iran has 9 sites with 1.9 million ha. area.
1.9 Non-protected public land areas
Non-protected areas are under severe pressure, ranging from minimum to maximum destruction. There are demonstrable declines in the quality and quantity of habitats over vast areas caused by soil erosion, salinization and lowering water tables. Total costs of land degradation are estimated at around two billion US dollars annually. Soil erosion and the declining fertility and productivity of rangelands and arable lands, sedimentation in reservoir lakes, destructive floods (quadrupled during the last forty years), and destruction of natural habitats are the main components of the estimated losses. Major changes in land use should be undertaken in these environments. These environments, because of their huge surface area, support substantial parts of the biomass of Iran’s biodiversity.
1.10 Ex-situ conservation
All the measures so far indicated reflect instances of in-situ (on the spot) protection. However, scientific evidence and traditional knowledge have demonstrated the value of genetic resources of wild and domesticated species as sources of biological diversity, and thus, techniques and specific advanced methods have been developed for protection of species and rehabilitation of ecosystems worldwide.
I.R. Iran has kept pace with such activities and developed comprehensive national plans, subject to periodic revision. The government has established education and research centers and has undertaken affirmative actions across the country throughout the past quarter of a century. These actions were necessary because of the rich and diverse, but fragile ecosystems of Iran. Collecting and preserving of seeds, planting and maintaining of rare plant species, developing advanced techniques of seeding, testing adaptation capacities of seeds, hybridization of plant and animal species and microbial genetic engineering are only a few of the recognized practical experiments directed in Iran towards ex-situ conservation.
These activities have been directed towards establishment of natural history museums, seed and gene banks, botanical gardens, wildlife breeding centers and animal safe habitats, herbaria and microbial collection centers. These centers have been established in conjunction with in-situ practices to support existing populations, regardless of their size. Ongoing research provides the basic knowledge required on endangered, disadvantaged and sensitive species.
Almost all such centers have been established by the governmental sector, and different organizations are charged with the well-being of various groups of organisms. For example, the Ministry of Agriculture deals with affairs related to crop and fruit plants and breeding of silkworms; the Ministry of Jehad-e-Sazandegi is responsible for maintaining forests, rangelands, poultry and livestock, fishery and honey bees; and the Department of the Environment looks after wild species of animals, birds (endangered species in particular) and non-commercial marine species.
It is quite evident that wild species do not at present receive as much attention as domesticated species, despite legislative support. Although, this may be unavoidable at present, forceful functioning and continuous monitoring and assessment by the Department of the Environment will be of critical importance for conservation of biological diversity and to proper functioning of ecosystems. The major ex-situ conservation centers of Iran are:
1.11 Tourism and Recreation
Iran, benefiting from different ecosystems, has good tourist potential. The climatic variations combined with natural ecosystems and landscapes create unique natural scenery. Outdoor recreation activities are popular and widespread among Iranians. In spite of the development of modern life and urbanization, many people prefer to seek fresh air and nature at the weekend. But outdoor recreation has not yet been included in management policies, and there is no comprehensive management plan on this subject. As a result, destruction of nature and natural scenery occurs in the suburbs of large cities, because of a lack of public awareness. There has been very limited public education for nature utilization and people are not familiar with the values of the biodiversity. Illegal construction of houses and villas in naturally sensitive areas has also exerted pressure on ecosystems.
Despite continuous efforts to attract tourists over the last 60 years, successive governments have not been successful. Eco-tourism is one of the developing sectors in global economy. Tourists can enjoy Iran’s rich biological diversity, including the forests and the Caspian in the north, the deserts of the central regions, mangrove forests in the south, as well as the coral reefs and exotic fish in the Persian Gulf. The income earned by ecotourism can be partially spent on preservation of ecosystems.
The issue of tourism was mentioned in the first (1989-1994) and second (1994-1999) Five-Year National Socio-Economic Development Plans, but in recent years, the budget allocated to tourism was not fully spent. Generally, it can be concluded that tourism has not been successful in these five-year plans. Some of the reasons for this failure are as follows:
The efforts of the government are directed towards ways of promoting tourism without sacrificing cultural and environmental values.