The "squirrel man" replanting Iran's forests

The children living around Mount Zagros have nicknamed this man the “squirrel man”.
The children living around Mount Zagros have nicknamed this man the “squirrel man”.

Huge oak forests are in the process of dying in the area around Mount Zagros, in western Iran. The culprit isn’t drought or deforestation, it’s squirrel poaching. These animals are essential to the forest ecosystem because they bury the acorns that grow into trees. One man decided to take up the fight for these little rodents and the big forests they care for.

Once captured, squirrels are often sold as pets in markets across Iran for roughly 15-30 euros. In the forest, the animals make a habit of burying acorns and various seeds to save them for later. However, they often forget where they’ve buried these reserves and their hidden acorns can grow peacefully into trees.

Squirrel poachers also use methods that destroy the forest. For example, they often set fire to the trees where the squirrels take refuge. By law, a poacher who destroys a tree faces a fine of 800,000 Iranian rials (equivalent to roughly 20 euros), while hunting a squirrel can result in a fine of 3,500,000 Iranian rials (equivalent to roughly 100 euros). But this isn't enforced. 

The threat to the forest isn’t new. Activists first sounded the alarm about the rampant squirrel poaching back in 2010. But, six years later, the situation hasn’t changed and the little animals are still being poached, meaning that acorns are not getting planted at the rate they should be.

This photo shows a caged squirrel for sale in the Iranian capital of Tehran. Photo originally published here.

"Man disturbed the ecosystem in this region, so it’s our job to find a solution"

Mozaffar Afshar lives in Khorramabad, a town in the Lorestan region, in western Iran. He decided that, in the wake of the squirrel poaching, he had to do something to make the forests grow.

My wife and I started planting oaks about thirty years ago. We think we’ve planted about 300,000 oaks in the region of Zagros.

Afshar uses all different containers to grow trees in-- from old soda cans to bottles of detergent and even fruit peels.

His house is full of oak seedlings.

I grow the oaks myself. I use any container I can find to grow seedlings in -- including recycled cigarette cartons. Essentially, I do exactly what squirrels do in the wild.

I buy acorns from the villagers. After a few months, once the seedlings have grown enough, I replant them in the forest with the help of volunteers. Six local NGOs help us. Every weekend, we give about 20 potted oaks to mountain climbers who bury them in much more remote areas.

I spend roughly 4500 euros a year on this project. That said, man disturbed this ecosystem so it’s our job to find a solution. All of this collaboration helps the local economy. I also try to raise awareness about the need to protect the forest.

Afshar plants acorns in all different containers, including fruit peels, to grow seedlings that he will later plant.

This sign says “Why cigarettes? Why smoke? I create oxygen for my society”. Afshar’s home has become a local attraction.

"I explain to the schoolchildren that these trees saved their grandparents"

Mozaffar Afshar trains volunteers to replant the forests.

Every week, I visit two new schools to explain to them what we are doing. I tell the students that the trees in this forest saved their grandparents back in the era of WWII. A famine swept this region and people were able to forage for food in these forests. I then tell them that it’s up to them to be guardians of this forest in the future.

There are no statistics attesting to the number of squirrels left in the Mount Zagros region.

For the past year, an NGO called Pajin has also been bringing together volunteers to plant hundreds of trees each weekend.

The "squirrel man" of Mount Zagros has also been working to bring back native plant species such as hawthorns or terebinths, which consume small amounts of water and can live for centuries. He is trying to get local municipalities to switch and start planting these smaller, native species instead of poplars, which grow quickly but use up a lot of water.

Mozaffar Afshar visits schools to talk about caring for the forest.