Iraq: Dante's hell for animals?

ERBIL Iraq — After a long journey from Thailand to Iraq smuggled inside a backpack, the stale stench of her new concrete surroundings is no doubt an improvement for the 6-month-old lion cub. After pacing the few steps her squalid enclosure allows, "Sero" settles down to chew on the bars of her cage. Aside from the occasional taunting by young visitors, this seems to be the only distraction on offer in her cell.

Nearby, a brown bear that once roamed the Kurdish mountain reaches from the shadows of a filthy enclosure for a wafer biscuit that a boy holds just out of reach.

Meanwhile, in a central cage that seems to double as the zoo’s garbage dump an adult male baboon makes lewd gestures to a group of teenage boys poking him with sticks.

This sad place is not the beastly equivalent of Dante’s third hell, but a zoo — and a typical one for captive animals in Iraq.

“Animals are kept in cramped and dirty conditions and in situations  totally alien to them,” Anna Bachman of Nature Iraq said after a visit to this zoo known as Glkand in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan.

“Their cages, if labeled at all, often seem to misidentify the species  and provide no information on them,” she said adding that the only valid purpose for even a “humane zoo” is education and/or breeding endangered species of which Erbil does neither.

Surveying the grounds of the 8,000-square-foot zoo, which exhibits around 30 species that strangely include caged domestic dogs and cats, is Glkand Zoo supervisor, Nakhosh Sabir.

Impassive as the gang of boys continue to torment the baboon, now grunting angrily, Sabir says that intervention was necessary sometimes to protect the animals from visitors. He cites a recent incident in which the baboon stole rosary beads from a man, who then pulled a pistol on the monkey, threatening to shoot if he did not hand over the stolen goods. The monkey refused, but was quickly trapped with plastic pipes to retrieve the beads and prevent a messy incident, Sabir said.

This bizarre circus ring of animal cruelty has environmentalists outraged. And according to some, the grisly trade going on behind the scenes is much worse.

“The real business of zoo owners in Kurdistan is marketing,” said Hana Ahmed Raza, a field technician for Nature Iraq who has been researching wild mammals in Kurdistan for the past 9 months. “They are permitted by the government to import wildlife for the zoo but they are using this permission for illegal trade.”

During her research, Raza has identified Glkand Zoo as a hub for animal imports. Among rich Iraqis, owning a private zoo is a bragging point she said, and the trend is increasing with more exotic animals being sort after in a bid to upstage the neighbors.

In her last visit to the Glkand zoo, Raza says a prospective buyer was attempting to bargain down the $80,000 price tag on the lion cub, a claim zoo owner Khalil Sabir Kawani — who started the small family run business in 1996 — denies.

“I’ll be honest, I do smuggle animals for private collectors,” Kawani said, “but only animals such as birds and monkeys. Not dangerous animals like tigers or lions.”

Most of the animals are smuggled from Africa or Thailand via Syria, Kawani said. To smuggle Sero the lion here from Thailand he had to pay $6,900.

The local breeds on display are generally purchased from local hunters who covertly sell both live animals and meat from local animal markets across the region, according to a preliminary report on animal trade released last month by Nature Iraq. The report says that hunting is rampant  throughout Iraq with local species bought and sold openly in Baghdad markets.

“Every year it escalates,” said Omar Fadhel, an ornithologist with Nature Iraq in Baghdad since 2004. “There is no law and no custom regulations. It is not only local wildlife being exported but Iraq is often used as  a transit point for smuggling from Iran to Syria."

Fadhel said the trade in Saker falcons, used traditionally for hunting throughout the Gulf region is rife in Iraq. These birds are exported to Kuwait and the UAE from the South and Saudia Arabia through the North and Western provinces, he said. 

Two species of otter, once abundant in the southern provinces, are also being hunted for their durable skins, used to make pouches to protect drugs hidden inside car fuel tanks and driven across the border to Iran, Fadhel said.

Open trade and hunting practices may induce outrage overseas, but the issue of Iraq’s diminishing wildlife has been of such little concern in recent years that the last documented research into wildlife populations was conducted in the 1950s. Today, Raza says,  
Nature Iraq is the only animal conservation group active in the country. Lax law enforcement and national instability, coupled with the threat of land mines in the mountains, meantime make habitat research impossible.

Environment Ministry adviser Shamal Mufti says the situation is equally frustrating for him. Having worked on environmental issues throughout the country for over two decades, founding the Green Kurdistan Society in 1991, Mufti says the decision in October last year to dissolve the Ministry of Environment in Kurdistan and replace it with a board without adequate preparations for the change has left his team with limited authority.

“The Environment Protection and Improvement law number 8 is still in place but there are obstacles in implementing it,” Mufti said. “It does not required cooperation from relevant ministries especially the investment board.”

Back in Erbil, governor Nawzad Hadi said he was aware that the condition of the animals at Glkand Zoo did not meet even local standards, but that plans were underway to have the zoo moved to a larger location where improvements could be made.

Kawani, who has been pushing for the move for over three years, says he has plans for a modern zoo where the animals will be happier.

“It’s my hobby. Yes, I will bring as many animals as I can,” he said in a phone interview, adding that he had already acquired two bears and a male lion from Turkey and would smuggle them into the country within the next few days.

Whether the move will improve the situation for these animals is yet to be seen, but, for Fadhel and the Nature Iraq team, there seems little hope that animal rights will improve in Iraq anytime soon.

“It is truly a dilemma,” Fadhel said. “Human rights in Iraq is  vulnerable so the majority of people think it does not make any sense to care about animals or wildlife. It is a matter of priority.”

Adding to the problem in Iraq is the instilled belief from youth that, hunting, using guns and killing makes a man stronger and more respected, Fadhel said. “Imagine when a kid is raised on such a base. There is no concern toward the life form which is beneath him in the food chain. Killing animals for a need or for fun, it is considered nothing.”