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Iraq: Dante's hell for animals?

Exotic animals are smuggled across continents only to end up in appalling conditions in private zoos.

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.