By Kira Walker
A combination of poverty and loosely applied laws is threatening the survival of rare wildlife in Iraq and Kurdistan, according to animal protection organizations.
For years, hunters and smugglers have taken advantage of chaos, unrest, and lack of regulation to illegally hunt and trade rare species. Birds and foxes from the remote mountains of Kurdistan and falcons from the scorching plains of southern Iraq are among the targets of a lucrative and illicit trade.
Notorious hotspots such as Souq al-Ghazal in Bagdad or the Friday market in Sulaimani are well known for their illicit wildlife trade. Globally threatened species can also be found for sale at ostensibly random roadside stalls and small village markets.
Hana Raza, mammal researcher at Nature Iraq, a non-governmental environment agency, says local hunting and trading of wildlife is “fueled by harsh socio-economic conditions, weak and unevenly applied laws regarding animal trade and hunting, and a lack of scientific study, making the severity of the animal trade very difficult to assess and act on accordingly.”
Worldwide, the illegal trade in wildlife is big business, worth an estimated $19 billion per year. It is the fourth largest global illegal activity after drugs, counterfeiting and human trafficking, and often involves the same organized criminal elements as global arms and drug trafficking syndicates.
The World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) regards the trade as the largest direct threat to the future of many of world’s most threatened species.
In an unprecedented move, earlier this year, the Indonesian Council of Ulama – the country’s top Muslim clerical body - issued a fatwa against wildlife trafficking by declaring that the hunting or illegal trading of endangered species was forbidden.
Closer to home, unsustainable and unregulated hunting is taking its toll on local wildlife populations.
Commonly targeted wildlife include Persian Leopards, three species of otter, goitered gazelles, Persian squirrels, several bird species including peregrine and barbary falcons, white-eared bulbuls and reptiles such as the nose-horned viper and the Euphrates soft-shelled Turtle.
San Saravan, a Sulaimani animal rights activist, says that despite Kurdistan having regional hunting prohibitions in place, these laws are applied differently to different people, with a blind eye often turned towards the wealthy and powerful.
The biggest factor driving people to hunt is financial. In Iraq, decades of ongoing conflict and war coupled with social and economic difficulties have fostered conditions that make illegal hunting all the more appealing to those looking for extra income.
The illegal wildlife trade has been pushed underground in the Kurdistan Region in recent years over fears of police crackdowns. But in central and southern Iraq, trading continues to be conducted in the open due to less stringent rules and enforcement.
Research carried out by Nature Iraq found Switzerland to be the main trading partner in Iraq’s illegal trade, followed by the US and Kuwait.
Dr Sulaiman Tameer, founder of the Kurdistan Organization for Animal Rights Protection (KOARP), says a major issue plaguing the enforcement of regulations is that there is no collaboration between the different ministries and directorates tasked with environmental matters.
“Several different ministries are involved with environmental matters – the Peshmerga, the Forest Police, the Environmental Directorate and the Agriculture Ministry – but there is no unification and people are not working together. We need one ministry to oversee all environmental matters,” Tameer says.
Sulaimani activist Saravan notes that the widespread disconnect from nature also plays an underlying role in fueling illegal hunting and trading of wildlife.
“People here say they love nature, but many have a poor understanding of all that nature encompasses. Wildlife are a part of our heritage too, but people have the wrong mentality towards wildlife and want to control it,” Saravan says.