Monday, April 06, 2009

ENV: Iraq Wildlife

Uncovering Iraq’s unique wildlife

Nature Iraq (BirdLife in Iraq) has completed their fifth winter survey of Key Biodiversity Areas (KBA) across the country. “From Kurdistan in the north, to the Mesopotamian Marshlands in the south, our surveys have highlighted the global importance of Iraq for birds, biodiversity and people”, said Dr Azzam Alwash – CEO of Nature Iraq.

Along with sightings of several Globally Threatened and endemic birds, the survey teams discovered an endemic sub-species of otter, and observed a worrying drought.

Nature Iraq have been working in coordination with Iraq’s Ministry of the Environment to conduct survey and monitoring work at KBAs since 2005. “Nature Iraq’s KBA project has sought to locate and assess potential areas of biological diversity, and to install a programme of monitoring”, said Dr Alwash.

This winter’s KBA surveys covered 65 sites, of which 12 in Kurdistan, and 53 in the middle and south of Iraq - including 14 new locations. “Two teams have been working hard to record the unique ecology of Iraq”, commented Ibrahim Al-khader - BirdLife’s Director for the Middle East. “The BirdLife Partnership will continue to support Nature Iraq’s work to identify and conserve sites globally important for biodiversity”.

“This winter we observed a flock of 410 Lesser White-fronted Goose Anser erythropus and considerable numbers of Eastern Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca – both Vulnerable - in Kurdistan”, said Korsh Ararat – leader of Nature Iraq’s KBA surveys in northern Iraq.

The Mesopotamian Marshes in the south of Iraq are especially important for wintering waterbirds. “As one of the most important wetland complexes in the Middle East, if not the world, these marshes are essential for the conservation of many species of birds as well as other wildlife”, remarked Mudhafar Salim - leader of Nature Iraq’s KBA surveys in the marshes and birding section leader.

“We observed African Sacred Ibis Threskiornis aethiopicus and African Darter Anhinga rufa making the Mesopotamian Marshes one of the only known sites in the Middle East for these birds. In addition, we recorded over 5,000 Marbled Teal Marmaronetta angustirostris, 2,340 Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa and seven Greater Spotted Eagle Aquila clanga - all Globally Threatened or Near-Threatened species”, added Mudhafar Salim.

For centuries, the marsh region between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers was vital for food – mainly fish and rice - production until 90% of it was drained by Saddam Hussein’s regime; forcing the local Marsh Arabs to flee the area. “During this time average temperatures in the area rose five degrees Celsius”, noted Dr Alwash.

Since the collapse of the regime, rehabilitation of the marshes has begun. Water has started to return to the internationally important wetland, restoring a vital habitat that is critical for the survival of biodiversity in the region.

Recently the wetlands covered more than 9,000 km2 – equivalent to over 13 million tennis courts - making surveys a very challenging task. “We were very excited recently when we discovered an endemic sub-species of otter – the Vulnerable Smooth-coated Otter Lutrogale perspicillata maxwelli”, noted Mudhafar Salim. “This indicates that there’s plenty more still to find!”

However, the marshes are now shrinking again as a result of drought and intensive dam construction and irrigation schemes upstream. "Flooding has been disrupted by the dams built in Turkey, Syria and Iraq itself", noted Dr Azzam Alwash. "The natural flow system is not going to return until and unless the dams outside Iraq are actively managed as part of a basin-wide coordinated management of the Tigris and Euphrates. In response, Nature Iraq is currently producing a drought management plan”.

Nature Iraq is also running an awareness programme aimed at hunters in the Basra region. “Our hunting campaign will help to conserve Globally Threatened species such as Marbled Teal”, said Dr Alwash.

Nature Iraq is part of BirdLife’s Born to Travel campaign which is aiming to improve the conservation status of migratory birds and their habitats along the African-Eurasian Flyway. Through the Born to Travel campaign Nature Iraq is seeking support in order to really make the difference for migratory birds.

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