The hunt for Iraqi Kurdistan’s elusive leopards

    25 Aug 2021

    Let’s get acquainted with the story about animal protection in Iraqi Kurdistan narrated by Rudaw.

    Korsh Ararat was sat at a restaurant in Sulaimani (Iraqi Kurdistan) on a February evening with a small group of friends. As at pretty much any casual gathering in Kurdistan, the main topic of conversation was politics. Korsh was a wildlife expert, particularly birds, so talk soon shifted to the protection of animals.

    “The law does not apply to everyone equally, especially to those with power and guns,” one of Korsh’s friends said. “Several months ago, a leopard was hunted in Sartaki Bamo by Mr … and no one can touch him,” naming a powerful official in the Kurdistan Region.

    Korsh was dumbfounded. A year earlier, he had trekked in the mountains for hours to bring down the carcass of another leopard, one of at least eight killed by poachers in recent years. He worried about this latest kill’s impact on the few leopards still living in the Kurdistan Region. Korsh felt he and the other volunteers trying to protect and raise awareness about the endangered leopards were fighting a losing battle.

    “I felt really, really bad. I know how difficult it is for a [cub] to become an adult leopard,” he recalled in March of the discussion at the restaurant.

    Korsh said he knows who the powerful man who hunted the leopard is, as well as which Kurdish government officials he is linked to, but refused to name him. After all, Korsh sometimes treks in the mountains on his own. Anything could happen to him there.

    Also, and in February, two of Korsh’s students, Soran Hama Ali Ahmad and his wife Soma Esmail, had heard rumors about a leopard that had been hunted near their home at the foot of the Bamo mountains that arch across the Iran-Iraq border. On the morning of the ninth, Korsh sought out Soran at the university in Sulaimani to tell him about the tragedy that had struck. “I know about it,” Soran said. “I’m going to go and search for it.”

    As volunteer researchers, Soran and Soma had placed camera traps in the Sartaki Bamo area. In November 2020, one of the cameras caught sight of a rare leopard. The video went viral on social media, which may have brought some unwanted attention to the area.

    Soran trekked up Bamo mountain a couple of times to find the leopard’s body but had no luck. “I thought that whoever killed it must have taken the carcass,” Soran told Rudaw. But on the morning of March 21, while trekking up the mountain with his brother, Soran spotted a bone that looked like it was once part of a large animal.

    As ravens croaked and hawks hovered overhead, Soran searched the steep area close to the mountain’s peak. At the base of an oak tree lay a leopard that had succumbed to its injuries and the sharp bite of a claw. Looking at the body’s state of decay, Korsh was certain that the leopard was killed more than nine months before he found it. “But the head was missing,” Soran said on the spot where he found the remains six days later while a Rudaw TV team accompanied him, fallen.

    “Maybe this was the last one,” Korsh said as he watched his students collect bones and place them in blue carrier bags to carry back to the lab.

    The remains of a leopard on Bamo Mountain on March 27, 2021. Photo: Rudaw

    No one really knows how many leopards are left in Kurdistan, but that there are any at all came as a pleasant surprise to one conservationist a decade ago.

    “Before rediscovering the leopard in 2011, it was thought that leopards were gone extinct in Iraq … after 2011, due to the use of camera traps, we were able to see more and more leopards, and after that more people started reporting them, said Hana Raza,  program manager at the environment and wildlife NGO Nature Iraq.

    “This could mean that their numbers gradually increased, but it could also mean that we found them because we started looking for them … without proper scientific data, it is hard to say whether the number of leopards had increased or decreased compared to 2010 when we had no information about their presence.”

    According to bird expert Richard Porter, the wildlife in Sartaki Bamo and Kurdistan, in general, is unique in many ways.

    “I have visited Kurdistan many times over the last ten or so years, and I have also visited countries around it … so I understand the birdlife, the wildlife and the richness of Kurdistan are wonderful, the density of birds, the variety of the birds is the best I have seen,” said Porter. He has studied birds in the Middle East since 1966. “Much of Kurdistan is unspoiled and really, really, a wonderful haven for wildlife.” But that richness in wildlife is increasingly under threat due to poaching, the sense of impunity for powerful officials, and political polarization in the Kurdistan Region.

    In the summer of 2017, the world breathed a sigh of relief as Iraqi and Kurdish security forces took the battle to the Islamic State in Mosul and the surrounding area and defeated the global menace. But for the Asiatic leopard roaming Kurdistan’s rocky peaks, danger still lurked. Some veteran Peshmerga officials and their entourages hunted wild boars, birds like the ubiquitous partridge, and mountain goats. With their advanced weapons, including sniper rifles with night vision binoculars provided by the international coalition to fight ISIS, a few Peshmerga veteran officials appear to have ignored the warnings and signs at sites of natural beauty that read ‘hunting is forbidden’ to use these rifles to for hunting leopards. Korsh is adamant that a small number of powerful Peshmerga officials are behind the poaching. His students concur.

    The coalition forces donating the weapons have signed an end-user agreement with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) so that weapons in the Region not be used for any purpose other than fighting ISIS, but they’ve found their way elsewhere. For instance, Heckler & Koch rifles donated by Germany are available for sale on the black market across the Kurdistan Region, where they trade for around $3,000.

    Most of the Peshmerga forces in the Kurdistan Region are of two kinds; one where just over 30,000 officers graduated from the two prestigious Kurdish military academies and are under the control of the Peshmerga ministry. The second is organized by the Kurdistan Region’s two main ruling parties, the KDP and PUK, their top officials former Peshmerga commanders who fought Saddam Hussein’s regime. These ex-commanders are often from big tribes that have strong links to centers of power in Erbil and Sulaimani. The Bamo Mountain and its surrounding area are under PUK control, as is the Piramagrun Mountain from where Korsh and his team brought down the carcass of another leopard in early 2020.

    The lack of accountability for some peshmerga officials may be part of why Kurdistan’s leopards are being killed, but it is not the only reason. Repression across the border in Iran has dramatically impacted the team in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

    Conservation without borders

    Korsh finished his biology degree in 2006 and began working with the environment and wildlife NGO Nature Iraq the year after. Through a KRG-sponsored higher educational program, he obtained his MA from the University of East Anglia in the UK in 2012. He returned to Kurdistan to resume his work with Nature Iraq. He now works with the Kurdistan Botanical Foundation based at the American University in Sulaimani and teaches at another university in the city.

    When Korsh started working with Nature Iraq and carried out a biodiversity survey in the mountains of Kurdistan, a group of Iranian conservationists came together and founded the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF) to protect around sixty endangered Asiatic cheetahs that roamed the deserts of Iran. The foundation members worked directly with the Iranian government’s Department of Environment and with UN agencies. Both Nature Iraq and PWHF had solid international links, and given that their work overlapped, they began collaborating soon after in 2008. By 2011, training was set up for Korsh and a group of other conservationists by Iranian experts from the foundation. “They helped us a lot. They were real experts,” Korsh said.

    By openly opposing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) wishes to establish missile and nuclear sites in the protected areas, the Iranian conservationists were up against their country’s very highest powers.

    Nature Iraq and PWHF decided to strengthen their relations. Korsh would meet a number of the foundation’s experts over the next few years, including Amirhossein Khaleghi and Niloufar Bayani. One of the areas they focused on was Sartaki Bamo. In 2017, there was even talk of creating a national park that straddled the Iran-Iraq border, with Korsh to go to Iran for general training.

    But in January 2018, the authorities in Tehran rounded up eight conservationists from the PWHF, including Bayani and Khaleghi. They charged them with spying on nuclear and missile sites by placing secret cameras near them. The IRGC was trying to counterbalance the ever so slightly West-leaning policies of President Hassan Rouhani and his government, especially after the nuclear accord of 2015. For the IRGC, anyone with any link to the West, particularly the United States, became a target.

    Morad Tahbaz, who held British, American and Iranian citizenship, was one of those detained. Kavous Seyed-Emami, the Foundation’s managing director and a Canadian citizen, was found dead in prison shortly after his arrest and intense interrogation. The ruthlessness of the IRGC was made explicit for the world to see when Niloufar Bayani appeared in court sometime later. The interrogators showed Bayani a piece of paper they said was her death sentence, accompanied by a photo of Emami’s dead body.

    “They politicized the issue. There was nothing to suggest that they were spies,” Korsh Ararat said of his colleagues. “Saddam Hussein’s regime did the same, using excuses to imprison people.” Korsh realized that some of the camera traps that they had placed near the border town of Halabja had mysteriously disappeared.

    In a letter to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, hundreds of conservationists from 66 countries around the world, including renowned ethnologist Jane Goodall, said that the eight Iranian conservationists acted with the “highest moral integrity” and called on the authorities for a “fair and just evaluation of the evidence” against the detainees. “We are convinced that their work and research had no second means or objectives,” read the letter signed by conservationists including Korsh in November 2018. “Some of us are ready to provide evidence and witness testimony upon request.”

    As the Iranian conservationists linger in prison, Korsh counts off eight leopard killings over the last decade. One leopard in Piramagrun was hit “by a hail of bullets,” he said.

    According to Nature Iraq’s Raza, failure to change things – especially on the part of the KRG – could bring a tragic end for Kurdistan’s leopards.

    “We have limited international support; however, the local government does not have any financial support for our conservation projects,” said Raza.

    “If there’s no action towards protecting the species, especially by the KRG, they will most definitely go extinct,” Raza said. “Currently, the leopard population is not viable, and it takes extensive efforts to bring their numbers up to ensure their survival.”

    For Korsh, there is some glimmer of hope for the leopards’ survival. Many of those who hunt for a living do not prey on endangered species. “The professional hunters know that you don’t hunt rare animals … I have seen hunters who are against killing animals like leopards,” Korsh said. On top of that, large areas of Kurdistan’s mountains are still covered in landmines, giving wildlife the respite from hunters that the Kurdish authorities cannot provide.

    Soran and Soma are trying to finish their MA studies while watching the impressive peak overlooking their village. They remain determined to help save the leopard, despite all the obstacles they face. “No one really supports us. We do it ourselves because we care,” Soma said.

    If the KRG were ever to get serious about creating a safe habitat for leopards – including enforcing laws against powerful officials who hunt with impunity – they could turn Sartaki Bamo into a protected area for ecotourism, Korsh said. In a country where 97% of the land is arid or semi-arid, the lush oak tree forests of the mountainous north could become a new source of income for the fledgling coffers of the KRG. They need look no further than the Barzan area of the Kurdistan Region, where hunting has been forbidden for generations by local sheikhs. 

    “There are many people who are ready to come and see Kurdistan’s leopard,” Korsh said. “It’s a national asset.”Well, we’ve got another story about cats – one of the most dangerous predators for the wildlife. Probably the first people who managed to adopt cats 9,000 years ago were farmers in the Middle East, didn’t you know?

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