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Mesopotamian marshes
Country/Territory Iran, Islamic Republic of,Iraq
Area 130,000 
Altitude 0 - 100m  
Priority high 
Habitat loss major 
Knowledge incomplete 


General characteristics 

The Mesopotamian marshlands are one of the most extensive wetland ecosystems in western Eurasia. They comprise a complex of interconnected, shallow, freshwater lakes, marshes and seasonally inundated floodplains following the lower courses of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, extending from Baghdad in the north to the Basrah region in the south. The boundaries of the EBA fall largely within Iraq but also extend into extreme south-west Iran (Khuzestan province). Throughout these wetlands, the emergent vegetation is dominated by reeds Phragmites, reedmace Typha and papyrus Cyperus, and there is a rich submerged flora of aquatic plants.

Restricted-range species 

Two restricted-range species are endemic to this EBA. Turdoides altirostris is confined to the lower Tigris and Euphrates valleys of central and southern Iraq and extreme south-west Iran. Its distribution is centred on the reedbeds of the marshes although it also occurs in rural habitats along rivers and irrigation canals. Acrocephalus griseldis is a summer visitor, breeding in reedbeds between Baghdad and Basrah, and wintering in central East Africa.

A further two widespread waterbirds have subspecies which are endemic to this EBA: Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis iraquensis and African Darter Anhinga rufa chantrei. Mesopotamian Crow Corvus (corone) capellanus, also endemic to this EBA, is a very distinct taxon within the Carrion/Hooded Crow complex, which could possibly be a good species (Madge and Burn 1993).

Species IUCN Category
Basra Reed-warbler (Acrocephalus griseldis)  EN 
Iraq Babbler (Turdoides altirostris)  LC 

Important Bird Areas (IBAs)

IBA Code Site Name Country
IQ027  Haur Al Hachcham and Haur Maraiba  Iraq 
IQ030  Haur Chubaisah area  Iraq 
IQ039  Haur Al Hammar  Iraq 
IQ040  Shatt Al Arab marshes  Iraq 
IQ073  Hawizeh  Iraq 
IQ075  Central Marshes  Iraq 
IR059  Dez river marshes and plains  Iran, Islamic Republic of 

Threats and conservation 

There has been considerable loss of wetland habitat in this EBA owing to large-scale projects for flood control, drainage and irrigation (Maltby 1994). Many large dams and barrages have been installed on the upper and lower Tigris and Euphrates (in Iraq and in neighbouring Turkey and Syria), and an elaborate network of canals has been constructed for irrigation of the fertile alluvial plains between the two rivers. In addition, water from the Euphrates has been diverted away from the marshes into a huge man-made canal, the 'Third River', which discharges irrigation waste-water directly into the Gulf. These measures-together with the recent building of high embankments along both rivers and compartmentalization of the marshes with dykes-are said to have prevented water from entering up to two-thirds of the marshes during 1992-1993, and satellite images show huge areas drying up (Evans 1993, Pearce 1993).

Increasing salinity is another serious threat, owing to the continuous flushing of salts from irrigated land via the drainage canals. Wetlands have also been degraded owing to regional conflicts, such as the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), when much of the fighting took place in and around the Mesopotamian wetlands, resulting in extensive burning, heavy bombing and the widespread use of chemical weapons. Levels of pollution have also increased substantially through the use of insecticides (as a quick method of poisoning and catching large quantities of fish) and the introduction of motorboats. In addition, the increased settlement throughout the region, coupled with improved access, will undoubtedly have resulted in wildlife being subjected to more disturbance and higher levels of hunting and persecution.

Despite these changes, both of the endemic species are still common in the suitable habitat that remains, but they are judged to be Near Threatened because of continuing habitat loss and degradation. The region is probably extremely important also for one threatened widespread species, Marbled Teal Marmaronetta angustirostris (classified as Vulnerable), which has a major breeding population (perhaps thousands of pairs) within the EBA-although this population may currently be highly threatened by habitat degradation and is totally unprotected; this number is possibly more than breeds in any other single state, and the EBA may also be important for the species in winter (Green 1993).

The EBA is also one of the most important areas in western Eurasia for the wintering and staging of waterbirds (especially from western Siberia), for wintering raptors, and as a refuge for waterfowl during periods of exceptionally severe weather further north. Threatened and Near Threatened species with important populations which winter in the marshes include Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus (classified as Vulnerable; c.10% of the world population), Pygmy Cormorant Phalacrocorax pygmeus (Near Threatened; c.10% of the flyway population, current breeding status in this EBA obscure) and Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca (Vulnerable; c.5-10% of the world population). In addition, Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca (Vulnerable) is a scarce winter visitor, White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla (Near Threatened) is likely to winter in small numbers, Greater Spotted Eagle Aquila clanga (Vulnerable) is a fairly common winter visitor and Slender-billed Curlew Numenius tenuirostris (Critical) may also winter (only three records, but coverage by ornithologists has been poor). The marshes are also home to small and very isolated populations of two Afrotropical species (Goliath Heron Ardea goliath and Sacred Ibis Threskiornis aethiopicus) and hold a significant proportion of the world breeding populations of Grey Hypocolius Hypocolius ampelinus and Dead Sea Sparrow Passer moabiticus.

Evans (1994) has identified 12 Important Bird Areas in lower Mesopotamia as being of global and/or regional importance for bird populations. The largest and most important wetland systems within the EBA include: Haur al Hammar and its associated marshes south of the Euphrates (3,500 km2); the central marshes, a vast complex of permanent lakes and marshes north of the Euphrates and west of the Tigris (3,000 km2); and Haur al Hawizeh and its associated marshes, east of the Tigris extending into Iran (2,200 km2). These areas are currently unprotected although it has been recommended that some form of conservation area or special wetland management zone be established urgently.

Recommended citation  BirdLife International (2014) Endemic Bird Area factsheet: Mesopotamian marshes. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 22/08/2014

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