Contrary to a widely held area, Iraq’s autonomous region of Kurdistan does not hold a large population of wild animals. This is partly because most species in the region are heavily exposed to hunting and therefore threatened with disappearance. Environmental organizations as well as citizens concerned about the preservation of nature have jointly launched actions to protect animals and to favor their reproduction. The regional government has also adopted several rules and regulations in order to monitor hunting and to protect animal populations. But all research to evaluate the number and varieties of animals within the Kurdish region remain widely approximative. Censuses indicate the presence of partridges, hens, gazelles, wild goats, jacals, wolves, bears, boars and even panthers. Among the 300 gazelles listed in the region, a third are found in the Qaradagh mountains, where two panthers have also been spotted.

Who are the hunters ? 

According to a census by the regional office of the forest and environmental police (ROFEP), no less than 838 people have been arrested for infringing the environment protection laws in 2020. Judicial investigations have been initiated against 233 of them while 98 firearms and 192 poaching traps have been confiscated. Several of the offenders consider hunting as a sport while others engage in it for commercial reasons. 

Sarwar Qaradaghi is the co-chair of the Kurdistan Environment Protection Association (KEPA). Questioned by The Red Line on the devastating impact of hunting and poaching in the region, he pointed at political leaders for responsibilities: « Those hunting are political or governmental officials, or are related to them. An ordinary citizen cannot hunt in broad daylight ». Corroborating this claim, Mr. Fuad Ahmad, a ROFEP official, noted that 80% of hunters are high ranking officials. Still, in seven years, hunting has diminished, due to a raise in awareness by Iraqi kurdish citizens as they are better informed about hunting regulations that have been set up in the previous years. « Before, a hunter could shoot a dozen partridges during a single hunt. Today, they hardly shoot two. With the help of the Ministry of Agriculture and  Interior and the Regional Agency for the Protection of the Environment (RAPE), we aim at reoganizing and monitor the hunting methods. »

Article 33 of the Iraqi constitution provides for the protection of wild animals. Moreover, the RAPE’s first regulation of 2015 stipulates the hunting conditions and seasons. RAPE’s spokesperson, Mr. Ahmad Mohammed, declared that his agency has the mission to favor the growth of biodiversity in the region: « We have limited hunting in general and forbidden the hunting of vulnerable or endangered species , as well as those at risk of extinction. », he announced. But are these measures enough?

An anarchic practice

A ROFEP census details that no less than 377 animals were seized in 2020, some alive, others dead. The latter were released in the wilderness by the agents of the Forest Police. Bakhtyar Qadr, the president of the Association for the Defense and Rights of Animals (ADRA), considers that hunters do not abide by any rules in the Iraqi Kurdish region: « As soon as they see an animal, they shoot. They don’t distinguish between species. For example, the Boukassour, a local passerine bird, is in a critical danger of extinction, but is still intensively hunted and sold on markets. » Mr. Qadr expressed satisfaction that the police finally reacted and arrested some poachers involved in the trafficking, although he regretted all the threats still surrounding one of the region’s falcons, a highly prized species by foreign buyers who spend large sums of money in order to obtain one. 

The Garmian region (South of Sulaymaniyah province) is also known to shelter many species of animals. It is a prized hunting ground for poachers, according to Sarwar Qaradaghi. In general, all species are targeted by them, even though gazelles, partridges and francolins are the most impacted by hunting. « I’ve even seen bears and panthers shot there », cried out the director of KEPA. Questioned by The Red Line, the director of communication of the ROFEP, Mr. Hemin Kamarkhan, declared that his forces had already made seizures on traffickers’ markets.  

Hunter’s association

In Iraqi Kurdistan, several hunter’s associations exist. They have their own interior rules. According to Mr. Diler Ebdullah, a regular hunter with 35 years of practice, getting over such a sport is almost impossible. Mr.Diler is not affiliated with any hunter’s organization anymore but goes hunting on his own although he admits having fewer momentum than in the past. He was quite straightforward in sharing his experience with The Red Line: « I hunted many animals. Before I used to hunt gazelles, but I stopped when it became illegal. I regret hunting them in the past. Now I only hunt pigeons. I shoot two or three per day hunting and I go back home.  Mr. Diler regrets that the Kurdish Regional Government completely banned hunting of certain species. « Previously, within our hunter’s organization, we had this regulation making it forbidden to hunt animals during mating season.We would hunt a few animal throughout the year and would spare the others. Completely forbidding the hunting of animals is excessive. », he stated. 

2015’s regulation calls for fines against those hunting wild animals. These vary depending on which animal was poached, ranging from a hundred thousand dinars to ten million dinars (67 to 6700 USD). Environmental NGOs have criticized the regional government for being too permissive toward hunters. « Sometimes pregnant wild goats are shot in Garmian. But the killers only got fined 25 thousand dinars (about 16 dollars) instead of the 30 million dinars that should normally be inflicted and was quickly released without getting his hunting gear confiscated norr getting any prison term », regretted Mr. Qaradaghi, adding that the Forest police releases law breaking hunters due to political pressures. According to Mr. Ahmad, law should be the same for everyone. « It often happens that we arrest a hunter who is also member of the peshmerga forces of a high government officer. No one ever hears about their judiciary cases. ». Mr. Ahmad suspects that powerful actors intervene in order to liberate thoses who have been charged for poaching or illegal hunting.

Drought is the other threat to wildlife

Hunting is not the only plague threatening fauna in Iraqi Kurdistan; drought has also brought peril to the region’s ecosystem. In the last years, environmental NGOs as well as local sensitive about the animal’s cause have started organizing to fight water scarcity. the NGO ADRA has many volunteers organizing the supply of water for wild animals in mountainous areas with water tankers. « Our organization provides water to animals during the summer and food during the winter in order to halt their disappearance. », described Mr. Qadr, before noting that in 2020, hunters put drugs in water tanks in order to target animals more easily before selling them on the market. 

Hunters target environment NGOs and police

Après avoir dénoncé l’abattage d’un animal en gestation, Sarwar Qaradaghi se voit condamner à 15 jours de prison. « Une chèvre sauvage en gestation avait été tuée, j’ai fait un poste sur Facebook pour dénoncer cet acte. Le chasseur en question, un officier du ministère de l’Intérieur, a porté plainte contre moi. Du coup, j’ai été arrêté et emprisonné. » Rebaz Rahman, pourtant lui-même officier de la Police des forêts et de l’environnement, nous relate son expérience malheureuse : « Vers minuit, lors de ma ronde sur mon lieu, je me suis fait admonester par 14 personnes dont la plupart étaient des officiers de la Police qui étaient armés pour la chasse. Ils m’ont agressé et blessé. J’ai tenté de porter plainte, mais seuls deux d’entre eux ont été arrêtés puis relâchés très vite. » 

Sans doute, R. Rahman n’est pas la seule victime de ces méfaits. Nombreux sont ceux qui ont fait l’objet d’agressions physiques de la part des chasseurs. « Cette année un officier de la Police des forêts a été blessé par cinq chasseurs qui venaient d’abattre une chèvre sauvage, nous confie S. Qamarkhan, en principe, l’affaire devrait faire l’objet d’une enquête judiciaire. ».   

NGOs want protected areas 

In the past, environmental NGOs have called upon the Kurdish regional government to establish 45 protected natural reserves. Yet, nothing has been achieved on that matter so far. Still, citizens’ initiatives are multiplying on some territories. In Erbil’s province, Zourgazraw and Sakran areas are now protected. But according to Bakhtyar Qadr, there are undetermined areas, with no legal status as they are not fenced or do not benefit from any surveillance equipment or task force.

In the Qaradagh area, located in the Sulaymaniyah province, a fenced area some hundred square kilometers wide was created by Diler Shaykh Mustafa, a local figure. Hunting has thus been completely banned in the Qaradagh region, an area that includes twenty two villages. D. Shaykh Mustafa explained to The Red Line that his project dates back to :  « Initially, we had to raise awareness among the population about the importance of wildlife, then we set up a police force tasked with enforcing the prohibition of hunting and conficating hunting equipment of any offender. ». Hunting has almost completely disappeared in the private reserve, which has also been equipped with surveillance cameras. « Our efforts bear fruits, expressed Mr Mustafa, delighted. The wildlife population started increasing all around the mountain; even panthers have been spotted! »

Iraqi Kurdistan has two other such protected areas: in the Barzan area (Erbil province) and the Medya area (a territory called « Parastina Herêma Medya » under control of PKK militants, NDLR). The Barzan reserve is one of the most well preserved area in the country where animals have also significantly bloomed. As for the reserve under PKK control, no hunting is allowed in it. Nonetheless, the wildlife is confronted to another type of serious threat: the regular bombing by Turkish aviation who has caused significant damage to forests and the disappearance of thousands of animals.