The Explosive Battle to Build an Iraqi National Park

Amid land mines, militants, and air strikes, conservationists are trying to carve out a protected area in the war-torn country. Can they succeed?

Photograph by Alexandra Rose Howland, National Geographic
Photograph by Alexandra Rose Howland, National Geographic

CHOMAN, IRAQ – If Grmandil mountain were a ship, it might have sunk under its weight of land mines.

Big ones, small ones, tank killers, and devices designed to maim not murder, they dot the steep, rocky flanks like deadly toadstools. High up, near the cloud-covered summit, tons of munitions lie dormant under the snow, ready to strike again come spring.

No one hikes here. Few animals roam. It’s such a perfect death trap that even seasoned mine disposal specialists, no shrinking violets, give the peak a wide berth.

“Mines here, mines there, and probably more mines there,” said Mam Rasool, gesturing left, right, and straight ahead. “It’s not a good place.”

He should know. He’s down to one leg and only part of his stomach after myriad run-ins with the mountain.

View Images

The flock of Taha Zirar graze throughout Sakran Mountain Range.

And yet if a determined band of local environmentalists get their way, all this might soon form part of Iraq’s first international standard national park. Undeterred by the explosive remnants of recent wars—and desperate to salvage what’s left of their country’s much-depleted flora and fauna, these men are intent on carving out an enormous protected area of roughly 460 square miles (that’s twice as large as Zion National Park in the U.S.). After decades of widespread environmental destruction, most recently at the hands of Islamic State jihadists, they’re hoping to build both a wildlife sanctuary and a symbol of a better, more peaceful future.

“This could be a recipe for the rest of Kurdistan, the rest of Iraq,” said Salar Chomani, a mountain guide and keen supporter of the park.

View Images
Bakhtyar Bahjat and Dlzar Qader, both former Halgurd National Park Employees and the main influencers in the push for the National Park, stand overlooking Sakran Valley.

Big Challenges

The path ahead, however, is treacherous—and not just because of the minefields. Tucked away in the far northeastern corner of Iraq, in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, the site of the Halgurd-Sakran National Park has never been easily managed. The terrain is almost impossibly rugged, with sheer cliff-faces that look to have been violently hewn by the wind. And its inhabitants—hardy Zagros mountain people—have fought long and usually successfully against outside control. Though entirely in Iraqi Kurdistan, the park is so close to Iran—and Turkey—that “Welcome to Iran” cell phone messages frequently flash up. To fulfill their dream, the environmentalists might have to do what most empires couldn’t: pacify the “Devil’s Triangle.”

On a global scale, too, the park’s proponents must upset the form book. With no money and little political support, Halgurd-Sakran’s prospects are uncertain even if it does get off the ground. From Sudan’s Dinder National Park to Virunga in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and even Iraq’s own UNESCO-listed Mesopotamian Marshes—which have been threatened with removal from the World Heritage List less than two years since they were added—protected areas have a very mixed track record in war-ravaged countries. As militants and security forces play out a lethal game of cat-and-mouse within the park boundaries, even the project’s cheerleaders question if this is a sustainable venture.

But despite the odds, and repeated setbacks so far, the young team behind Halgurd-Sakran believes they can ultimately carry this off. Having seen their homeland survive countless crises, they’re used to improbable challenges. And so at a time when the White House is rolling back two million acres of public land in Utah, Iraq is intent on going the other direction.

“For years we looked at the world, we looked at Iraq, and our part of Iraq—maybe the most difficult part—and we wondered if this was a good idea,” said Dlzar Qader, the park’s former public relations officer and a native of Choman, the district capital and park hub. “But we want to show that this can be done and that the population here cares about the environment.”

View Images
Overlooking Weze Village, last village of Kurdistan before Iran.

High Hopes

In the beginning, at least, the park’s completion looked to be nothing less than a sure thing.

First dreamt up around 2010 when Abdulwahid Gwani, the mayor of Choman, returned flush with inspiration from a visit to Austria’s alpine national parks, Halgurd-Sakran’s development initially progressed at lightning speed. The mayor assembled an eager crew of local assistants and roped in some volunteer scientists from Vienna. Under the Austrians’ expert instruction, they mapped the park and drew up a play-by-play plan for the area’s transformation.

Soon afterwards, Gwani mobilized mine clearance teams, who started making major inroads in the 130 minefields estimated to ring and infiltrate the park. By 2012, the lower reaches of Sakran mountain were declared safe.

“In the best case, we thought that we should have by the end of 2017 a park that is recognized by IUCN,” said Martin Jung, one of the team from the Austrian Institute of Technology.

View Images

Two people walk along the road on the edge of Choman. The town is especially quiet in the winter.

Most importantly, perhaps, the money soon came to match the mayor’s lofty ambitions. After receiving a budget pledge of $12 million from Kurdish regional authorities, a buoyant Gwani doubled the size of the park almost overnight to include Halgurd and Cheekha Dar, the country’s highest mountains at about 12,000 feet apiece. Twenty years after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had last laid waste to Kurdish areas, destroying all 124 villages around Choman in the process, one of the most devastated districts looked to be at the forefront of the region’s revival. “A lot of blood has been spilled for these mountains, so treat them well,” read a recent roadside anti-litter campaign.

As the cash rolled in, the park slowly started to take shape. The team built a visitor center on the edge of Choman in early 2013, replete with animal murals on the log cabin-style walls. That was followed a few months later by the hiring of 60 rangers. Barracked on the lower reaches of Halgurd and dressed in a special uniform of bucket hats and camo clothes, these men were instructed to set up checkpoints in the mountains and to scan the peaks for illicit hunters. Then, in perhaps their toughest challenge yet, the park team got to work convincing skeptical locals that this wasn’t just a cunningly disguised land grab.

“There’s been so much corruption that people thought this was just a way to control the mountains,” said Bakhtyar Bahjat, once the chief education officer and now the park manager. “We had to persuade them that this would be good for them.”

View Images

Abdul Rahim Hussein, 52, owns this fueling station outside Choman. He receives his oil from Iran, causing his business to take a hit while the Iran-Iraq border was shut up until the first week of February.

In those heady early days, even some of the park’s eventual problems looked like potential positives. For the past few decades, the PKK, a Turkish Kurdish militant group that is deemed a terror organization by the U.S., has operated dozens of bases in the isolated highlands of Iraqi Kurdistan. Living out of caves and in the thick forest to the north of Halgurd and south of Sakran, they control a sizeable swathe of the park—and keep everyone out. Crucially, as far as local conservationists are concerned, that includes hunters.

“They love the environment, it’s one of their beliefs, so no one can touch even a bird there without experiencing big problems,” Qader said. “So from our perspective, there is some good from having them there.”

Once chock full of animals and plants, large stretches of the Kurdish mountains have fallen eerily silent after decades of war and unregulated hunting. Syrian brown bears have all but disappeared, as have Persian fallow deer. Spur-thighed tortoises are seldom spotted. And during a recent survey of Halgurd-Sakran’s waterways, researchers found only nine types of fish.

“Farmers say that 10 years ago, you put a bullet from an AK-47 into the river and 10 fish jumped out,” says Nabil Musa, a prominent Kurdish environmentalist who’s been working on the park almost since its inception. “Now you could drop two bombs and nothing would move.” This wildlife sanctuary was to be a last roll of the dice for some of Iraq’s most vulnerable species.

(Learn more about the decline of Iraqi wildlife.)

View Images

Trash pollution is one of the major problems facing the Sakran Mountain Range. Here the residents of Choman dump and burn their trash, causing damage to the environemnt.

Dashed Dreams

By early 2014, the park looked to be only months from completion. That, however, is when everything started going wrong.

First, ISIS stormed out of the deserts of Syria and western Iraq that summer, seizing up to 40 percent of Iraq, and pushing to within 20 miles of Erbil, the seat of the Kurdish Regional Government. Thousands of security personnel, including every Halgurd-Sakran park ranger, were rushed to the front. In their absence, the mountains once more echoed to the sound of uncontrolled gunfire.

“It was the people hunting at random, just shooting like crazy with big guns, war weapons, that really made things worse,” said a hunter who’d only give his nickname, Barzeen. The partridge, ibex, and wild goat populations swiftly slumped to new lows.

With the jihadists laying down prodigious quantities of explosives, the de-miners soon followed the rangers to war. “We had no choice but to withdraw some of our men from Choman to support the push south of Erbil,” says Jamal Jalal, director general of the Erbil Mine Action Center, the government organization responsible for demining much of the mountains. “So of course that slowed everything down.”

As the scene of some of the heaviest fighting during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, with some two million devices planted by both sides along this stretch of border, the Choman area remains among the most heavily mined landscapes in the world, he says.

View Images
Abubakir Mahmoud, 74, hoes his land within Nawanda Village. Mahmoud fought with the PUK against Saddam Hussein in the 1980s.

(Learn more about how Iraqi land mines have contributed to the Persian leopard’s revival.)

Then, the global oil price tanked throughout the second half of 2014 , taking with it the Kurdish—and Iraqi—authorities’ dominant source of revenue. The park employees’ salaries were cut from $500 a month to $300 and then nothing at all. Qader moved to Erbil and began working for a distribution company; Bahjat fell back on his day job as a school principal. No longer able to afford kerosene, many Choman residents prepped for the chilly winter by chopping down thousands of pine trees from the surrounding mountains. Where once dense thickets of trees hugged the town’s periphery, now clouds of wood smoke engulf the Azadi river valley.

“It’s a cold place and people don’t have money,” Qader said. “There’s a limit to what you can do.”

Finally, in mid-2015, just when the Halgurd-Sakran team thought things couldn’t get any worse, the uneasy peace between the PKK and the Turkish government collapsed, triggering a renewed Turkish campaign against the PKK’s northern Iraqi bases that continues to this day. In 2017, Ankara dropped 123 bombs and fired 118 shells across the border, according to a Kurdish military source, a few of which fell well within the park boundaries. Local rumor has it that a Turkish jet bombed a cluster of wild boar after mistaking it for a band of PKK fighters during a late night assault. The militants are purported to have rigged cliffs and ravines with explosives in the unlikely event that Turkey were to launch a ground operation this far south.

And to cap off a dreadful few years, Mayor Gwani passed away from a heart attack last June. He was the master motivator behind it all, the politically savvy force of will who kept the park moving forward. Deprived of his connections and clout, progress on Halgurd-Sakran has stagnated.

“With Gwani there were lots of projects,” Nabil Musa said. “When he died, though, things just went down and down and down.”

View Images

A restaurant, shut for the winter months, sits on the side of the Choman River. During the summer it will be filled with visitors from around Iraq and neighbouring countries.

Planting the Seed

Sitting in a Choman café on a bitterly cold January evening, Bakhtyar Bahjat says it can be hard to stay optimistic amid these endless hammer blows. “You work a lot and then all this happens.” But despite the heartache, neither he nor his colleagues are willing to give up on the park yet.

Though hampered by the PKK’s refusal to grant him entry to their territory, Musa continues to study the area’s streams. The IUCN would require a detailed inventory of Halgurd-Sakran’s animal and plant life were it to qualify for official national park status. Bahjat and Qader are still reaching out to schools, soliciting funds from NGOs, and furiously lobbying politicians during their spare time. Their efforts recently yielded some results when the new mayor agreed to ban commercial mineral water well boring.

There’s plenty of evidence, too, that those years of work haven’t been entirely in vain. Convinced now of the merits of the park, many Choman residents seem truly enthusiastic about Halgurd-Sakran. As a local initiative with considerable buy-in from the park residents, it stands a much greater chance of succeeding than had it been imposed from outside. And with more officials waking to the necessity of diversifying the oil-centric economy, government has dangled the enticing possibility of investing in tourist-friendly spots.

View Images

The city of Choman starts to light up as the sun sets. There is rolling power in this area, which allows only certain houses to have electricity at specific times throughout the night.

“We really are in the depths of a financial crisis, but we have a national strategy for the environment, for tourism,” said Jassim Al-Falahi, the deputy Iraqi minister of Health and Environment. “These protected areas will be very important for that.”

Still, in this complicated part of an extremely complicated region, there will always be new obstacles, and so as the team strives to build the park, they’ve also accepted that they’re going to need to be patient. A project like this was always going to take time, they tell themselves. If nothing else, there’s now a new, more environmentally conscious younger generation to finish the job.

“Halgurd-Sakran National Park? This is just a paper name, it doesn’t exist,” Nabil Musa said. “But this is our dream, and me, Bakhtyar, Dlzar, we made a decision that whenever we have a chance, we’ll make this happen.”