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The largest otter species in Asia, the smooth-coated otter, has disappeared from most of Iraq due to habitat loss and hunting.

Joe Blossom / Alamy Stock Photo

Iraq's Unique Wildlife Pushed to Brink by War, Hunting

After decades of strife, the world’s first civilization is losing many of its animals, such as otters, deer, songbirds, and more.

Even by the Islamic State’s brutal standards, the mess its fighters made of Kaldo Shoman’s farm had to be seen to be believed.

Over more than two decades, Shoman and his two brothers had labored to turn their land into an ad-hoc animal sanctuary. By planting trees, they hoped to attract migrating birds—and eventually tourists—to this largely barren swath of northwestern Iraq. In an area with scarce water, they carved out an artificial pond—and then watched as wild pigs and the occasional gazelle came calling.

But in one fell swoop, the Islamic State wiped their refuge off the map.

Blasting through the front gate in the summer of 2014, the men penned the Iraqi farmer's horses into a paddock and used them for target practice, Shoman says. After shooting Shoman's pet vulture and hogtying his favorite dog to a moving tractor, they carted off his extensive collection of songbirds. (See "Here Are the Ancient Sites ISIS Has Damaged and Destroyed.")

Keen to deprive would-be attackers of potential cover, the fighters then torched dozens of forested areas, including the Shomans’ roadside plantation. They laced the soil with mile after mile of landmines. When, in late 2015, Iraqi Kurdish troops closed in on their last holdings in northern Nineveh Province, the retreating jihadists deployed one last ecosystem-killing tactic: Dumping oil.

“Look what they did!” Kaldo Shoman says, pointing at the jet-black trails of diesel that still coat his pond 18 months later. “They are the animals!”

The past few decades have been intensely challenging for many Iraqis, who’ve lived through several conflicts, crippling economic sanctions, and now jihadi terror. But lost amid the understandable focus on the human toll is the impact this chaos has had on the country’s wildlife.

Before its 40 years of near-unbroken hostilities, Iraq teemed with life, including a half-dozen types of cat, an impressive array of falcons, and several hundred species of fish, including the plump river carp that gave rise to Iraq's national dish: masgouf. So prolific was its snake population that the ancient Sumerians milked the serpents' venom and used it for medication.

But in recent decades, wildlife sightings are becoming more and more rare, conservationists say. Due to the ongoing conflict, scientific data on species decline are scarce. At least 31 bird species are threatened or at the point of extinction, according to Nature Iraq, a local nonprofit. (Bigger beasts, including Asiatic lions and Caspian tigers, long ago disappeared from the landscape.)

“For thousands of years we had plenty of wildlife, from Zakho [in the north] to Faw [in the south],” says Adel Musa, director of Baghdad Zoo, where some of Iraq’s few remaining big cats now reside. (See National Geographic magazine's pictures of Baghdad after the storm.)

“But after all this war, all of Iraq’s circumstances, I am sad to say they are greatly depleted.”

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A man stands on what was once a wetland in Southern Iraq. Wildlife that disappeared after the marshes were drained are slow to return.

War Zone

The Iran-Iraq war shoulders much of the blame for the wildlife decline.

Starting in 1980, two enormous armies battled one another back and forth across the border region for eight years, laying waste to the mountains in the process.

Entire populations of wild goat and wolves were whittled down to almost nothing by shellfire, forest rangers told National Geographic. The number of migrating Persian fallow deer dropped precipitously, in part due to extensive trench networks, and is now regionally extinct in Iraq, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

When former President Saddam Hussein chopped down most of Basra’s 12 million date palms in order to prevent sneak assaults on all-important oil facilities, he transformed this once lush environment into a sterile flatland from which neither it—nor its animal inhabitants—have ever recovered. (Also read about the struggle to save Baghdad Zoo animals in 2003.)

Several years later Hussein turned his fury on southern Iraq’s marshes, the region’s largest wetlands. Intent on flushing out defeated rebels, he ordered the landscape drained, its people dispersed. As the waters dried up, the area’s rich array of otters, pelicans, striped hyenas, and river dolphins vanished, in most instances never to return.

Poachers have also killed off the smooth-coated otter—which is considered vulnerable to extinction—throughout most of its range in Iraq.

“The fish, the birds, the bigger animals: It’s not like before,” says Ismail Khaled Dawoud, a buffalo breeder who moved back to the marshes after they were partially reflooded.

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A couple navigates a boat through Hammar Marsh in Iraq. Emptied by Saddam Hussein, the marsh has been reflooded, but remains contaminated.

“We’re happy to be here, but it’s just not the same.”

Trail of Destruction

The Islamic State picked up where the Iran-Iraq war and Saddam's suppression of internal revolts left off.

From laying extensive lines of explosives to igniting oil wells to conceal their movements from U.S jets, the fighters have forced livestock and wild animals to navigate a literal minefield of dangers every day.

“Sheep and goats are regularly getting blown up,” says Sean Sutton of Mines Advisory Group, an international weapon-removal group that has cleared over 11,000 devices in northern Iraq since late 2015. The mines likely disrupted wildlife-migration patterns as well, Sutton says.

The extremists have left a trail of wanton, sometimes bizarre, destruction. In January 2015, they burnt down one of northern Iraq's largest forests at Dibis, ostensibly to cloud the nearby town with smoke in advance of an attack, but really just to make locals' lives miserable, says Ismail Nouri Mohammed, a colonel in the Asayish, the Kurdish internal security service. (See "Why ISIS Hates Archaeology and Blew Up Ancient Iraqi Palace.")

Fighting ISIS In June 2014, ISIS fighters swept across the Syrian border and tore into Iraq. Today, ISIS controls over a third of Iraq. The Kurds and their underdog army defend their home against the world’s most feared and ruthless threat.

Dozes of animals, from boar to wild horses, were burnt alive.

Were battlefields the only hazardous terrain, Iraqi wildlife might not be in such desperate straits.

But amid a partial breakdown in civil society over the past decade, illegal hunting has also proliferated.

Some impoverished residents of the Euphrates and Tigris valleys have taken to shooting protected bird species, hoping to supplement their diets at a time of economic hardship. The marbled duck, a tasty delicacy to many, has subsequently become endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Triangle of Death

For others, however, state paralysis has provided a welcome opportunity for unregulated sport, including trapping rabbits and shooting vultures. With entertainment limited in rural Iraq, many men are going hunting.

“Everyone here has a gun, and when you have a gun, you shoot,” says Ibrahim Hassan Al-Haramoozi, a tribal sheikh in rural Kirkuk Province. “So now there are no more animals.”

Before the Islamic State emerged, the authorities appeared ready to clamp down on at least some illicit hunting. Lawmakers tabled anti-poaching legislation, while their counterparts in the semi-autonomous Kurdish government established a standalone forest police in the north. Anyone carrying a rifle in a protected area could, in theory, be sent to prison. (Related: "Kurds Fight to Preserve 'the Other Iraq.'")

But as the jihadists closed in, by 2014, most non-war-related legislation was shelved. The Kurdish anti-hunting force was redeployed to fight on the Mosul front, and the Ministry of Environment was rolled into the Ministry of Health in 2015. With the pressure off, uncredentialed huntsmen have been hunting with abandon, according to licensed sportsmen.

“In the desert, along the rivers, in the mountains, they are a big problem,” says Ahmed Hummadi, secretary of the Iraqi Hunters’ Association, the legal permit-issuing body. “And they make us look bad.”

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Goats roam near the Tower of Babel in 1977. Many domestic animals have also been killed by landmines left by the Islamic State.

On a mild December afternoon, in a hunting ground just outside the Iraqi capital, Hummadi and three companions eagerly scanned the skies for patridges, shotguns at the ready. But there was nothing to shoot. The partridge, called a francolin, is not endangered, but Hummadi says they are not as plentiful as they once were. (Read about how Baghdad is recovering after decades of war.)

The Triangle of Death, as U.S troops once labelled this area due to its high militant activity, seemed to be cleansed of life.

The Way Forward

Not only do conservationists not know the full situation on the ground, biodiversity hasn't been a priority.

And after being cut off from the rest of the world for so long, the country lacks much of the necessary expertise to start documenting it now, says Musa, the Baghdad Zoo director.

“A lot of our animals were never registered in the first place,” he adds.

Even today, with conservationists eager to help, the security situation continues to intrude. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, for one, hasn’t been able to update its fisheries data in Iraq since 2004.

Paradoxically, war has panned out quite nicely for a few species.

Protected by landmines, which have kept humans at bay, the Persian leopard is enjoying a mini revival in the mountains along the Iran border. Since a large group of Qatari falconers was kidnapped in Iraq’s southwestern desert, the number of visiting Gulf Arab hunters has fallen dramatically, possibly allowing some species to increase in number.

In the part of the world where civilization first developed, Shamon, the farmer, thinks it possible people might one day have the land to themselves.

“If even people are struggling to survive here, how are animals meant to get by?”