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Location Iraq, Al-Basrah,Dhi Qar,Maysan
Central coordinates 46o 59.33' East  30o 57.53' North
IBA criteria A1, A2, A4i, A4iii, B1i, B2
Area 131,780 ha
Altitude 0 - 6m
Year of IBA assessment 1994

Nature Iraq (Affiliate)

Summary 2014 updates. Historically, the Central Marshes comprised a vast complex of mostly permanent freshwater marshes, with scattered areas of open water, located to the west of the River Tigris and north of the River Euphrates (within Basra, Thi-Qar, and Missan provinces) and represented many diverse habitats from seasonal to permanent marshes. Evans (1994) listed it as an Important Bird Area (IBA038) fed by both rivers but today, even after re-flooding of some areas many of the connections from the Tigris remain severed. The Central Marshes are now restricted to two areas: Chibaish Marshes, north of the city of Chibaish, and Abu Zirig Marsh to the northwest; the two areas are still connected and the geology of both areas is Mesopotamian alluvium, mainly silts.

Site description The Central Marshes comprise a vast complex of mostly permanent freshwater marshes with scattered areas of open water, to the west of the River Tigris and to the north of the River Euphrates (30°50'N--31°30'N, 46°45'E--47°25'E). The marshes are fed by both rivers, and at maximum flooding in late spring they cover an area of about 3,000 km2. Almost the entire area is covered in tall reedbeds of Phragmites and Typha. Large portions of the marshes are difficult of access, and have seldom been visited by biologists. To the north, between the marshes and the Tigris, lies extensive cultivation, including rice fields and huge sugar-cane polders. The Ma'dan or Marsh Arabs have lived in these marshes for at least 5,000 years, but the majority have now been displaced by massive habitat destruction (see 'Conservation issues').

Key Biodiversity No comprehensive surveys of birds or wildlife have ever been undertaken. Georg and Vielliard visited the Al Azair area (in the north-east) in January 1967; Koning and Dijksen visited the Chabaish Marshes (in the south-east) in December 1972; Carp and Scott visited the Feraigat Marshes (in the north) and the Chabaish Marshes in January 1979. Other notable wintering species included Ciconia ciconia (103), Plegadis falcinellus (150) and Circus aeruginosus (73). The entire area was listed as a wetland of international importance by Carp (1980). Portions of this vast wetland which are, or were, known or thought to be of special importance for waterfowl include the following (comments on current status are based on study of a Landsat image from August 1992).

Feraigat Marshes (31°30'N 47°10'E) The north-easternmost section of the marshes, fed by flood waters from the Tigris. Known to support huge concentrations of wildfowl in winter (Savage 1968). In the 1950s Anser anser occasionally remained to breed. Much of this area has now been drained.

Al Azair Marshes (31°17'N 47°23'E) The north-easternmost section of the marshes, just west of the River Tigris. According to Savage (1968), this area of seasonal and permanent marshes was the principal known haunt of Oxyura leucocephala in Iraq. The village of Al Azair is also known as 'Ezra's Tomb' in earlier literature. These marshes have now been drained.

Haur Umm Al Binni Marshes (31°15'N 47°05'E) A large area of predominantly permanent marshes around Haur Umm Al Binni lake in the west-central part of the marshes. According to Savage (1968), these marshes were important habitat for wintering Aythya ferina. Marmaronetta angustirostris was reported to breed. Some of this area may now have been drained.

Fartus Marshes (31°10'N 46°55'E) Along the western edge of the Central Marshes. According to Savage (1968), this area, which includes the Sabil Al Awaidiya, was the habitat of large numbers of wintering Aythya ferina and Anser sp. Marmaronetta angustirostris was said to breed. This area may not yet have been affected by drainage.

Haur Az Zikri (31°10'N 47°10'E) The very large open-water lake in the centre of the marshes, said to be very important for wintering waterfowl (Savage 1968). This area may now have been drained.

Chabaish Marshes (31°00'N 47°00'E) A large area of permanent and temporary marshes in the south, including Haur Birkat (Birkat Baghdad), flooded both from the Tigris and the Euphrates (Savage 1968). This area may not yet have been affected by drainage.

Al Jazair Marshes (31°00'N 47°15'E) The extensive marshes on the north bank of the Euphrates before its confluence with the Tigris (Savage 1968). At least the eastern sector of these marshes has now been drained.

Non-bird biodiversity: Mammals: Lutra perspicillata (K; the subspecies L. p. maxwelli is endemic to the marshes and endangered), Gerbillus mesopotamiae (endemic), Erythronesokia bunnii (endemic).

2014 updates. Additional Important Bird Observations: During the surveys, 94 bird species were observed. In addition to those listed in the table, two Vulnerable species, Greater Spotted Eagle Aquila clanga and Eastern Imperial Eagle A. heliaca were found wintering, as well as five Near Threatened species: Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca (summer and winter), Pallid Harrier Circus cyaneus, Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata, Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa (passage and winter) and Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus (seen in winter 2013), but in sub-IBA threshold numbers. The endemic race of Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis iraquensis breeds widely. Other Important Fauna: Data were collected 2005-2010, but with more focused attention in 2007. The southern marshes lie at the center of the distribution of an isolated subspecies of smooth-coated Otter Lutrogale perspicillata maxwelli. Its status and distribution have been unclear due to confusion with the Eurasian Otter Lutra lutra (Near Threatened), which also occurs in the region. Recent surveys (Omer et al. 2012, Al-Sheikhly and Nader 2013) have confirmed the presence of smooth-coated otter in parts of the southern marshes for the first time since the 1950s-1960s and it is likely that this species occurs in the Central Marshes too, as well as other parts of the Tigris wetlands and marshes on both sides of the Iran-Iraq border. Some notable mammals found during the surveys (and according to local reports) were: Rüppell's FoxVulpes rueppellii,Jungle Cat Felis chaus and Wild Cat Felis silvestris. Due to the availability of food and shelter, it seems the Central Marshes provide good habitat for the Endangered Rafetus euphraticus. Fish: Data were collected from 2005 through 2007 and again in 2009, during which18 species were found. These were: Acanthopagrus cf. arabicus, Acanthobrama marmid, Alburnus mossulensis, Carasobarbus luteus, Carassius auratus, Cyprinus carpio, Cyprinion kais, Heteropneustes fossilis, Leuciscus vorax, Liza abu, L. klunzingeri, Luciobarbus esocinus, L. xanthopterus, Mesopotamichthys sharpeyi, Tenualosa ilisha, Tilapia zillii and Silurus triostegus. The latter appears to be increasing. In addition Mastacembelus mastacembelus was also documented, which is of no economic importance but their conservation status in Iraq is unknown. This site contains a good population of an economically and local heritage important plant, Phragmites australis.

Populations of IBA trigger species

Species Season Period Population estimate Quality of estimate IBA Criteria IUCN Category
Marbled Teal Marmaronetta angustirostris breeding  1997  50-249 individuals  poor  A1, A4i, B1i, B2  Vulnerable 
Great White Pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus winter  1975-1979  140-413 individuals  poor  A4i  Least Concern 
Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus winter  1975-1979  7-72 individuals  poor  A1, B2  Vulnerable 
Pygmy Cormorant Microcarbo pygmaeus winter  1985  31 individuals  poor  A1, B2  Least Concern 
Eastern Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca winter  1985  3 individuals  poor  B2  Vulnerable 
Slender-billed Curlew Numenius tenuirostris winter  1917  < 50 individuals  poor  A1, A4i  Critically Endangered 
Armenian Gull Larus armenicus winter  1979  503 individuals  poor  A4i, B1i  Near Threatened 
Basra Reed-warbler Acrocephalus griseldis breeding  1985  present  A2  Endangered 
Iraq Babbler Turdoides altirostris resident  1985  present  A2  Least Concern 
A4iii Species group - waterbirds winter  1979  20,000-49,999 individuals  poor  A4iii   

IBA Monitoring

2013 very high not assessed negligible

Natural system modifications dams & water management/use - large dams happening now whole area/population (>90%) very rapid to severe deterioration very high

Little/none of site covered (<10%)  No management planning has taken place  Not assessed  negligible 

Protected areas

Protected area Designation Area (ha) Relationship with IBA Overlap with IBA (ha)  
Mesopotamian National Park Protected Area 100,000 protected area overlaps with site 95,000  


IUCN habitat Habitat detail Extent (% of site)
Wetlands (inland)   major

Land use

Land-use Extent (% of site)
agriculture minor
rangeland/pastureland major
fisheries/aquaculture major
hunting major

Protection status 2014 updates. This site, especially the proposed National Park area (NEPIWR 2010), is a key part of the southern marshes complex and needs a stable and adequate water supply and effective protection from hunting and disturbance to maintain its value. In July of 2013, the Iraq Council of Ministers approved the designation of a portion of the Central Marshes as Iraq’s first National Park. Key to protection of the area will be the full implementation of the management plan for the area.

Acknowledgements Information compiled by Dr D. A. Scott and D. J. Brooks, reviewed by Dr Khalid Y. Al-Dabbagh and Dr Hanna Y. Siman.

References Georg and Vielliard (1968, 1970), Koning and Dijksen (1954), North (1993), Pearce (1993), Prentice (1993), Savage (1968), Scott and Carp (1982), Thesiger (1954). 2014 updates. Al-Sheikhly, O.F. and Nader, I.A. (2013). The status of the Iraqi smooth-coated otter Lutrogale perspicillata, Hayman 1956 and Eurasian otter Lutra lutra, Linnaeus 1758 in Iraq. IUCN Otter SG Bulletin 30(1): 18-30. Coad B. W. (2010). Freshwater Fishes of Iraq. PENSOFT Publishers, Sofia-Moscow.No.93. Evans, M. I. (1994). Important Bird Areas in the Middle East. Birdlife Conservation Series No. 2. Freshwater Fishes of Iraq NEPIWR (2010). Mesopotamia Marshland National Park Management Plan. Vol 1. Site Description & Vol 2. Strategies and Objectives. The New Eden Project for Integrated Water Resources. Omer, S.A., Wronski, T., Alwash, A., Maha H.E., Mohammed, O.B., Lerp, H. (2012). Evidence for persistence and a major range extension of the Arabian Smooth-coated Otter, Lutrogale perspicillata maxwelli (Mustelidae, Carnivora) in Iraq. Folia Zoologica.

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Recommended citation  BirdLife International (2016) Important Bird and Biodiversity Area factsheet: Central Marshes. Downloaded from on 28/10/2016

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