Conservationists work to protect endangered species in Iraq

Iraq boasts a rich natural environment. Spanning jagged mountains in the north to pristine deserts in the south, it offers a habitat to 84 endangered mammals, birds, reptiles and fish species. Wildlife conservationists are trying to strengthen laws and raise awareness to save these species from extinction. Simona Foltyn reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Iraq finds itself in the news usually due to violence and conflict, but the country also boasts a rich natural environment spanning jagged mountains in the north to pristine deserts in the south, offering a habitat to 84 endangered species.

    Wildlife conservationists are trying to strengthen laws and raise awareness to save these animals from extinction.

    Special correspondent Simona Foltyn begins her report in the Qara Dagh Mountains of Northern Iraq.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    We're following Hana Ahmed Raza on her arduous journey in pursuit of the Persian leopard, one of the 17 endangered mammals in Iraq.

    Scrambling across the rugged terrain and accompanied by forest police, the wildlife conservationist is trying to locate one of over 30 motion sensor cameras set up three months ago to photograph the elusive cat.

  • Hana Ahmed Raza, Wildlife Conservationist:

    So, for today, we're going to pick up two camera traps. And then we will check in see if we were successful in trapping a leopard or not.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    The Persian leopard once roamed large parts of Iraq from the mountains in the north to the lowlands further south. It was thought to have gone extinct as a result of decades of war, hunting and the gradual destruction of its natural habitat.

    Then, in 2011, Hana's camera traps strapped to oak trees along hidden forest paths first photographed the rare predator. She has since been working on a population estimate. But while these remote border areas offer refuge to the leopard, they also pose challenges for those trying to conserve it.

  • Hana Ahmed Raza:

    Sometimes, the government's suspect gets suspicious about the use of the cameras we use.

    There's a lot of paperwork that needs to happen in order for us to conduct camera trapping and field work.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Add to that the physical risk of accessing this previously war-afflicted region.

  • Hana Ahmed Raza:

    There's a lot of mine fields that stops us from going into the mountains freely and set up camera traps.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Hana believes around two dozen mostly male Persian leopards live in the Kurdish mountains of Northern Iraq sustained by a larger breeding population across the border in Iran.

    To map and protect the migration corridors used by the animals, she collaborates with Iranian conservationists. But the project came to a sudden halt in 2018, after her Iranian counterparts were arrested and later convicted for spying, most likely because they used camera traps.

  • Hana Ahmed Raza:

    The animals that we study are already in — facing a lot of threat. When the conservationists are imprisoned right now in Iran, there's no — no one in the field to work on protecting these animals.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Back at the car, Hana flicks through the pictures taken by the camera we just recovered. There are photos of wild goats, rangers patrolling, but no leopard.

  • Hana Ahmed Raza:

    I had great hopes for this one, actually.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    How disappointing.

  • Hana Ahmed Raza:

    Yes. It's very, very disappointing.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Still more setbacks are to come. Hana sets off to recover the second camera, but returns empty-handed. The camera was stolen, likely by hunters who fear it could expose them.

  • Hana Ahmed Raza:

    This is actually the second time my cameras are stolen in this particular area of the mountain. So — and then, as we were coming down, I actually saw two hunters.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Hunting in Kurdistan is forbidden, except for two bird species and the hare. But the rangers are too under-resourced, too thinly spread to enforce regulations.

    Oil exploration here in the Qara Dagh Mountains risks further hampering conservation efforts. For four years, conservationists have lobbied authorities to designate Qara Dagh as a nature reserve for the Persian leopard. But the process has been hampered by red tape, the lack of adequate legislation, as well as urgency on the part of the regional government, which is grappling with a myriad of political, economic and security issues.

    To catch a glimpse of the Persian leopard, we had to visit the zoo in nearby Duhok. This 6-year-old male recently lost his hind leg when he fell into a trap set by local farmers. Wildlife vet and conservation is Dr. Sulaiman Tameer had no choice but to amputate the injured leg. The leopard now faces a lifetime in captivity.

    But Dr. Sulaiman hopes the animal could still prove useful for conservation efforts.

  • Dr. Sulaiman Tameer, Kurdistan Organization For Animal Protection:

    Because it's like a rare species of animal here at the zoo. For scientific or for research, it's very good.

    Maybe it's good we do like some — we keep some semen or we can do something like artificial insemination, or we do some reproduction for our new generation.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Illegal hunting is not just threatening wildlife in Iraqi Kurdistan. It is wiping out ever-shrinking populations of endangered species across the country, including here in Iraq's southern deserts bordering Saudi Arabia.

    We joined a group of local hunters looking for the Asian houbara bustard, a migratory bird that spends the winters in Iraq.

  • Qaisser Badi Niema, Hunter (through translator):

    In the past, the quantity of the houbara was much more than the current year, but because of a large number of hunters, the number of birds has gone down.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    The houbara is a prized bird that can sell for hundreds of dollars. It's traditionally hunted with the help of falcons. Many of the falconers flooding these deserts during the cooler winter months are not Iraqis, but hunting delegations from nearby Gulf countries like Qatar or Kuwait.

    Their presence injects much-needed money into the local economy.

  • Thamer Abdullah Thamer, Hunter (through translator):

    The people here work as guides with the visitors from the Gulf countries. Also, the visitors buy sheep, food and vegetables from the market, fuel for their cars. And all of these things benefit the local community, which is good.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    But others are concerned that overhunting is quickly depleting the already scarce natural resources of these barren deserts.

  • Ahmed Khlef Niema, Hunter (through translator):

    They overhunt and waste the desert animal population, such as the hares, the houbara and other birds. They hunt for entertainment.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    The men say that the Iraqi government has encouraged hunting delegations from Gulf countries with whom Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi has sought to strengthen diplomatic and economic ties.

    But in Baghdad, officials at the Ministry of Environment say hunting of the houbara remains strictly forbidden and that permissions are granted through personal connections, rather than official channels.

    Najla Mohsen, Ministry of Environment (through translator): They have the permissions, sure, but who authorized them? I don't know. They apply for it through the governorate that they are willing to come and spend money, and the governor accepts.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Just like in Iraqi Kurdistan to the north, the environmental police don't have the resources to enforce the law. The result is that it has become nearly impossible to spot a houbara.

    Early morning, we sit out with Issa Jaber to try our luck.

  • Issa Jaber, Hunter (through translator):

    See those fissures and bushes over there? That's where the houbara likes to hide.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    But there's no trace of the bird this morning.

  • Issa Jaber (through translator):

    See, there's nothing crossing in this track. I can only see footprints for the fox, but no houbara.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Rising temperatures and desertification are putting further pressure on endangered species, gradually eroding precious habitat.

    But both climate change and conservation rank low on the government's list of priorities, leaving conservationists alone in their uphill battle to preserve Iraq's wildlife.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Simona Foltyn in the north and south of Iraq.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So rare to get that kind the report. We're so grateful.

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