Almost from the moment he could walk, Muhammad Siddik Barzani has delighted in his native Barzan region’s rich flora and fauna.
From the herds of curly-horned wild goats, some 5,000 of whom wander the steep rocky flanks around his house, to the prowling big cats that stalk them, the hillsides sometimes seem alive with animals. On one occasion last year, Barzani even spotted an exceedingly rare Persian leopard lapping from a local spring. When the grassy valleys bloom every March, turning this mountainous swathe of far northern Iraqi Kurdistan into an embarrassment of flowery riches, it can resemble a kind of heaven on Earth.
It wasn’t, however, until Barzani, a photographer and ornithologist, took an interest in environmental protection that he realized how lucky he’d been. With strict, century-old tribal and local religious prohibitions on hunting and deforestation, the Barzan has preserved its ecosystem better than almost anywhere else in Iraq.
Where gunfire frequently echoes from surrounding areas, animals in this rugged hinterland meander about, largely untroubled. As much of the rest of the country’s wilderness has slowly crumbled amid years of conflict, economic turmoil, and out-of-control development, Barzani’s neck of the woods has become exceptional by its very existence.
“Everyone knows there is war here, but then we have a beautiful protected area like this,” he said, wafting his arm toward the fast-flowing Great Zab River.
But if all goes according to plan, the Barzan might soon – and finally – have some proper company. Desperate to salvage other remnants of Iraq’s battered environment, conservationists and officials are battling to carve out a string of new wildlife reserves the length and breadth of the country.
They’re a statement of positive intent as Iraq slowly stumbles to its feet after beating off Islamic State jihadists. And a last-ditch crack at safeguarding endangered species, dozens of which have already disappeared from Iraq following almost four decades of uninterrupted war. For some of the region’s most vulnerable birds and beasts, these sanctuaries might even be their last chance of avoiding extinction.
“Caught in the crossfire, many species of animals, plants, and birds have become rare such as the smooth-coated otter and Basra reed warbler,” said Hassan Partow, an Iraq-focused Programme Manager at UN Environment's Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch. “If Iraq’s wildlife is not given adequate living space to survive and flourish, they will disappear.”
As things stand, only seven of the 82 key biodiversity areas (KBAs) that Nature Iraq, a leading local environment group, have identified are receiving some kind of protection. And while 1.54 per cent of Iraq is technically classed as “protected”, according to Protected Planet, a UN Environment and World Conservation Monitoring Center programme with support from the IUCN, most of this is under protection in name only. Globally, there are over 236,000 protected areas, which together form a landmass larger than Russia.
The first and perhaps most eye-catching of these new projects is the system of national parks. In the Mesopotamian Marshes of Iraq’s far south, and in the mountainous Halgurd-Sakran area several hundred miles to the north, conservationists have spent the past few years trying to transform some of the country’s most dramatic landscapes into international-caliber reserves. By shielding these tracts of wilderness from unchecked hunting and encroaching development, they have sought to safeguard everything from flamingoes to Syrian brown bears. For the marshes, in particular, a national park designation is a spectacular symbol of the region’s rebirth. Saddam Hussein infamously drained the wetlands in the early 1990s.
But in both cases, the problems have added up – so much so that the marshes risk losing their UNESCO heritage listing less than two years after they earned it. Financial support has been in desperately short supply since oil prices fell, and environmental regulations are routinely flouted.
With few tourists, park proponents have sometimes struggled to incentivize locals to buy-in to protecting their native environment. Progress, national park campaigners concede, has been agonizingly slow. “There have been so many challenges, even more than you might expect in a country like this,” said Dlzar Qader, who was until recently Halgurd-Sakran’s public relations officer.
Even more ambitiously, officials in Baghdad have tabled a plan to one day build an enormous trans-boundary reserve with Iran along their shared border. It would shelter some of the most wildlife-rich habitats, many of which thrive in the stretches of “no man’s land” between the two countries, and serve as a symbolic peace park not long after their armies fought one another to a bloody standstill for eight years in the 1980s. Already, bird experts are busily charting the bird life of the Howeiza marsh, which spans the frontier and would in theory constitute a key part of the prospective protected area, in a potential first step to compiling a park-wide inventory.
Here, too, however, the obstacles are legion. From almost unfathomably large piles of war debris, including up to 20 million mines along the border strip, to lukewarm responses from Iranian and Iraqi security officials, who fear expanded smuggling, this park comes with a raft of additional challenges. At a time when the relevant authorities have had their budgets slashed dramatically, even the project’s biggest proponents concede that it’s unlikely to go beyond the drawing board for years to come.
“We are working with less than 50 per cent of what we had in 2010, and so of course this influences our plans to build new protected areas,” said Jassim Al-Falahi, the deputy minister of health and environment and vice-president of last year’s UN Environment Assembly.
In 2014, Iraq planned to spend $1.25 billion on environment projects over five years, but with the financial crisis and then the burden of post-ISIS reconstruction, all this has been at least temporarily shelved, he added.
But despite the setbacks and ongoing difficulties, there is real hope. And much of this is coming in the form of small, locally propelled projects in the north, like the Shirin Mountain Man and Biosphere in the Barzan and the Qaradagh Peace Park, near Sulimaniyah. Indeed, they may well offer something of a model for local conservation. Their champions are looking to secure local cooperation at every step of the way, and (at Shirin at least) are starting comparatively small.
“We need to make a success of it, so we won’t make it very big to begin with,” said Muhammad Siddik Barzani, one of that project’s key advocates. “We can always expand if it works.” He recently spotted a bird – a Black-winged pratincole – on the mountain that he says hadn’t been seen in Iraq for over 100 years.
And most importantly, perhaps, having seen other protected areas struggling to fulfill their promise, they’re prepared for the long game. It might take decades to carve out these reserves, but they’re adamant they’ll stick with it. “Obstacles have slowed us down but haven't made us lose hope,” said Hana Ahmed Raza, a biologist and program coordinator at Nature Iraq. “It's a matter of time.”
Learn more about UN Environment’s work in West Asia.