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