BirdLife spearheads Iraqi conservation project in Garden of Eden
World-renowned bird specialist leads partnership to train Iraqi citizens in conservation techniques
Iraq’s Mesopotamian marshes – thought to be the biblical Garden of Eden, and the site of brutal habitat destruction during the Saddam Hussein era – are the focus of a pioneering BirdLife International project to monitor and improve the status of wildlife in the Middle East.
Funded by the Canadian government, UK-based ornithologist and conservation expert Richard Porter has been travelling to the region to train local biologists in skills to survey, monitor and improve Iraq’s marshes for the wildlife that live there.
Eighteen globally threatened species of bird occur in the marshes between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, alongside three types of bird that are found almost nowhere else in the world. The region is also home to Iraq’s Marsh Arabs.
Drained of water during the Saddam Hussein era, 90% of the marshes became almost devoid of wildlife. Since the collapse of the regime, a rehabilitation programme has begun. Water has started to return to the internationally important wetland, restoring a vital habitat that is critical for the survival of several bird species in the region.
Richard is leading a team from BirdLife International’s regional headquarters in Jordan. He will be training biologists from Nature Iraq, a new non-governmental organisation established in the region to help protect the environment in the country. The RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) is BirdLife International’s partner in the UK.
“My hope is that that project will make a difference in the region by training young Iraqi biologists to take good care of the spectacular wetlands that make up Iraq’s marshes,” said Richard. “If more people both internationally and locally can realise the biological significance of the region, they will be able to help conserve this wonderful area.”
Another member of the team – a local Iraqi biologist trained by Richard – has created a photographic exhibition that records the wildlife, landscapes, people and the way of life of the Marsh Arabs who live in the area
The exhibition, funded by the Canada-Iraq Marshlands Initiative, will be coming to the UK to a gallery in Norfolk, before moving on to Greece and Jordan.
“These are some of the most wildlife-rich sites in the Middle East, but often all we hear about is constant conflict. We want to show that it’s also a place of beauty, a place of real biodiversity, and a place where organisations such as BirdLife International can help equip local people with the skills they need to rebuild their country.”
“It’s recognised the world over that wildlife and natural diversity can be a real indicator of the quality of life in a region. We hope that this project can make some small contribution to improving the lot of Iraq’s people and wildlife,” said Richard. “The economic importance of the wetlands as a source of food for the region should also not be underestimated.”
The photographic exhibition will be going on show in the UK from April 22 until May 2, at the BIRDscapes gallery in Glandford, Norfolk. This will be the only stop it makes before moving on to Greece and Jordan.
For more information, photography, or to arrange an interview with Richard Porter, please call:
Ciaran Nelson, RSPB PR officer, on 01485 542 689 / 07725 064 795
NOTES TO EDITORS
About the Mesopotamian Marshes [map available upon request]
The Mesopotamian Marshes of southern Iraq are regarded as the biblical Garden of Eden. For centuries, the region was a vital food production and climate control feature in the hot, dry Middle East.
The region was once home to about 700,000 people, and a wide variety of fish, plants and wildlife. It covered an area of over 15,000 square kilometres, (over double the size of Norfolk). Sixty per cent of the fish consumed in Iraq came from the region.
However, under the regime of Saddam Hussein, almost 90% of the marshes were destroyed through drainage. When the wildlife died off, many people fled to neighbouring Iran and Jordan.
Average temperatures in the area rose five degrees Celsius, and dust storms became common.
Since the fall of that government in 2003 the marshes have been the focus of a major international programme to help restore their ecological and social-cultural heritage. Already, some 40% has been re-flooded and wildlife is returning.
In 1994 BirdLife International published ‘Important Bird Areas in the Middle East’. This identified 44 Important Bird Areas (IBAs) in Iraq, of which 28 were in the marshlands of southern Iraq [map available upon request].
About Richard Porter
Richard was previously head of species protection at the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), and initiated BirdLife International’s Middle East conservation programme. He is now BirdLife International’s Conservation Advisor for the region. He has been making annual trips to the Middle East since 1966 on both a personal and professional basis. This year marks the 40th consecutive year that he has visited the region. He is the author of Birds of the Middle East, which has now been translated into Arabic.
This book will provide the illustrations and text for the forthcoming Fieldguide to the Birds of Iraq. Richard is a champion of conservation in the region.
About the training, and the wildlife surveys of the Southern Iraq Marshes
Over the past two years, BirdLife International has been training Iraqi biologists to carry out bird and other wildlife surveys of the internationally important Mesopotamian Marshes. This training includes:
- identification and counting techniques
- habitat recording methods
- plant identification skills
- the use of equipment to monitor water quality
- wildlife photography to record their work
- wildlife conservation theory and practice
- Part of the Canada-Iraq Marshland Initiative (CIMI) - and funded by the Canadian Government - the training has, for reasons of security, been carried out in Syria and Jordan
The Iraqi team are from a new NGO, Nature Iraq, and already one summer and two winter surveys have been undertaken. Whilst only a shadow of their former self due to drainage during the Saddam Hussein regime, the marshes of southern Iraq are still hugely important for their breeding and wintering bird populations. It is hoped that, in time, Nature Iraq will become the BirdLife International partner in the region
The marshes hold 18 globally threatened species, as well as three endemic (or near endemic) species – birds that are found practically nowhere else in the world. Now that a re-flooding and rehabilitation programme has started, there is great optimism for its future.
About the Canada-Iraq Marshlands Initiative (CIMI)
The Canada-Iraq Marshlands Initiative (CIMI) is a cooperative venture supported by Canadian and Iraqi universities, government and non-government partners in association with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). It is led by the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. For more information, please visit http://www.cimiwetlands.net
About the photography exhibition in Norfolk
[sample images available upon request]
During the surveys carried out by the Iraqi biologists, one of them used photography to record the moods of the marshes, and the way of life of the Marsh Arabs. These are to be featured in an exhibition hosted by BirdLife International and the new BIRDscapes Gallery in Glandford, near Cley in North Norfolk. It will run from 22 April to 2 May 2006 and all are welcome.
About the globally threatened and near-threatened species occurring in the Mesopotamian Marshes
(Those that breed are marked *; others are migrants/winter visitors)
Species - Latin name - Status
Sociable Lapwing Vanellus gregarious Critically Endangered
Slender-billed Curlew Numenius tenuirostris Critically Endangered (last recorded in 1979)
White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala Endangered
Saker Falcon Falco cherrug Endangered
*Basra Reed Warbler Acrocephalus griseldis Endangered
*Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus Vulnerable
Lesser White-fronted Goose Anser erythropus Vulnerable
Red-breasted Goose Branta ruficollis Vulnerable
*Marbled Teal Marmaronetta angustirostris Vulnerable
Greater Spotted Eagle Aquila clanga Vulnerable
Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca Vulnerable
Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni Vulnerable
Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca Near-threatened
Pallid Harrier Circus macrourus Near-threatened
Red-footed Falcon Falco vespertinus Near-threatened
Corncrake Crex crex Near-threatened
*European Roller Coracias garrulous Near-threatened
Semi-collared Flycatcher Ficedula semitorquata Near-threatened
Black-winged Pratincole Glareola nordmanni Data deficient
Endemic or near-endemic marshland species in Iraq
*Basra Reed Warbler Acrocephalus griseldis
*Grey Hypocolius Hypocolius ampelinus
*Iraq Babbler Turdoides altirostris
Endemic or near-endemic marshland sub-species present in Iraq
*Little Grebe Tachypaptus ruficollis
*African Darter Anhinga rufa
*Black Francolin Francolinus francolinus
*White-eared Bulbul Pycnonoyus leucogenys
*Hooded Crow Corvus cornix capellanus
Some other bird species for which the Iraq marshes are important:
In winter, the marshes provide a refuge for migrant waterbirds, especially when freezing conditions occur further to the north. Other species occur as breeders – these are marked *
Black-necked Grebe Podiceps nigricollis
*Pygmy Cormorant Phalacrocorax pygmeus
White Pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus
*Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax
*Goliath Heron Ardea golith
*Sacred Ibis Threskiornis aethiopicus
Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber
White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons
*Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea
Teal Anas crecca
Gadwall Anas strepera
Pintail Anas acuta
Shoveler Anas clypeata
Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula
Smew Mergus albellus
*Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus
*Coot Fulica atra
*Avocet Recurvirostra avocetta
*Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus
Little Stint Calidris minutus
Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa
*Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybridus
About the Arabic version of the Field Guide to the Birds of Iraq
[image of cover available on request]
In summer 2006, BirdLife International and Nature Iraq will publish a ‘Field Guide to the Birds of Iraq’ in Arabic. All 400 species that occur in the country will be included in full colour. The illustrations and text have been taken from ‘Birds of the Middle East’ (in the Helm Field Guide series), which has recently been translated into Arabic.