In Iraq’s iconic marshlands, a quest for endangered otters

CHIBAISH, Iraq — “Don’t move a muscle.” His command reduce throughout the reeds rustling within the wind. On a moonlit embankment a number of kilometers from shore in Iraq’s celebrated southern marshes, everybody stood nonetheless.

Omar al-Sheikhly shined a flashlight throughout a muddy patch. “Nothing,” he stated, shaking his head. His staff of 5 exhaled in unison.

The environmentalist spearheaded this midnight expedition by way of the marshes of Chibaish. It is the newest in a quixotic mission that has spanned almost twenty years: to search out any signal of Maxwell’s smooth-coated otter, a severely endangered species endemic to Iraq whose precarious existence is significant to the iconic wetlands.

Most of al-Sheikhly’s pursuits have been in useless; the quick-witted otter has at all times been one step forward. But as local weather change looms, discovering proof they nonetheless exist assumes new significance. Al-Sheikhly is among the many conservationists issuing a stark warning: Without fast motion to guard the otters, the fragile underwater ecology of the UNESCO protected web site will probably be disrupted, and will all however wither away, placing in danger the centuries-old Iraqi marsh communities that depend upon it.

At stake is all the pieces: “We stand to lose our Iraqi heritage,” stated al-Sheikhly, who’s the technical director at Iraqi Green Climate Organization.

Studies point out there are between 200-900 smooth-coated otters left within the marshlands. Dangerously unpredictable water ranges, unlawful fishing and neglect are driving their demise.

A marsh Arab man collects reeds in the wetlands which are typically sold or used locally in Chibayish, Iraq, Saturday, May, 1, 2021. Deep within Iraq's celebrated marsh lands, conservationists are sounding alarm bells and issuing a stark warning: Without quick action, the UNESCO protected site could all but wither away.
A marsh Arab man collects reeds within the wetlands that are sometimes offered or used regionally in Chibayish, Iraq, Saturday, May, 1, 2021. Deep inside Iraq’s celebrated marsh lands, conservationists are sounding alarm bells and issuing a stark warning: Without fast motion, the UNESCO protected web site may all however wither away.
AP

This yr, Iraq is ready to face an unbearable summer time, with Turkish dam tasks on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers compounding a yr of low rainfall. “There is a real crisis,” Water Resources Minister Mahdi Rasheed al-Hamdani stated this month.

Water charges from each rivers are half what they have been final yr, he stated.

The Associated Press accompanied al-Sheikhly and his staff on a 12-hour mission over two days in early May. At 8 a.m. on the second morning, al-Sheikhly was off once more.

In lengthy wood canoes — known as mashuf — they traversed slim waterways lined with dense reedbeds crisscrossing the guts of the wetlands.

Jumping fish left ripples of their wake. Water buffalos languidly chewed grass. A kingfisher dove headfirst to catch unsuspecting prey.

As dragonflies chased his water-borne convoy, al-Sheikhly named no matter animal crossed his path as if they have been acquaintances. “Marbled duck,” he pointed. “Squacco heron.” He has been learning them for 18 years.

Water buffalos wade in the waters of the marshes after feeding on grass in the area Chibayish, Iraq, Saturday, May, 1, 2021.
Water buffalos wade within the waters of the marshes after feeding on grass within the space Chibayish, Iraq, Saturday, May, 1, 2021.
AP

Finding the evasive smooth-coated otter is the equal of profitable the lottery. Since their discovery in 1956 by Scottish naturalist Gavin Maxwell, the otter, distinguished by its modern darkish fur and flattened tail, has solely been photographed twice: when it was first discovered, and 60 years later, by al-Sheikhly.

Locals had tipped him off that otters have been seen within the a part of the marshes near the Iran border. There, on the remnants of an previous navy street solid by Saddam Hussein in the course of the Iran-Iraq battle, he waited for six hours. He noticed the otter for solely a few seconds.

Because analysis efforts are so poorly funded and otters themselves are so exhausting to search out, research in regards to the species have relied on their lifeless skins for indicators of life.

In January 2006, the recent pores and skin of an grownup male was obtained from a native fisherman — it was among the many first indications that the otter nonetheless thrived.

On this mission al-Sheikhly watched for indicators they go away behind: footprints, discarded fish heads, native sightings. He goes to areas they like, corresponding to lakes lined with reedbeds and muddy shores.

Fishermen unload the day's catch from the marshes into pick-up trucks in Chibayish, Iraq, Saturday, May, 1, 2021.
Fishermen unload the day’s catch from the marshes into pick-up vehicles in Chibayish, Iraq, Saturday, May, 1, 2021.
AP

In the central marshes of Dhi Qar province, his staff occurred upon two fishermen unloading the day’s catch. Al-Sheikhly stopped and requested them after they had final seen an otter — native observations are a major a part of survey efforts.

“Maybe one year ago,” stated one, piling mullets, catfish and carp onto a pickup.

Al-Sheikhly furrowed his forehead.

“That is a big concern, if the local community sees them rarely it means something has happened,” he defined.

Their significance can’t be underestimated. To environmentalists, otters are referred to as “bio-indicators,” species used to evaluate the well being of a whole ecosystem. Because they’re on high of the meals chain in Iraq’s marshes, consuming fish and generally birds, their presence ensures stability.

There was a time when the otters have been ample.

British explorer Wilfred Thesiger, a modern of Maxwell, wrote in his journey guide Marsh Arabs about one event when he noticed two otters enjoying a hundred yards away. “They appeared upright in the water, eyeing us for a few seconds, before they dived and disappeared.”

Pied Kingfisher birds, common in the marshes, take flight from the area where many bird species are endangered, in Chibayish, Iraq, Saturday, May, 1, 2021.
Pied Kingfisher birds, frequent within the marshes, take flight from the realm the place many chook species are endangered, in Chibayish, Iraq, Saturday, May, 1, 2021.
AP

In that second, his Iraqi escort reached for a gun. “Their skins were worth a dinar a piece,” he wrote. The sturdy otter skins have been widespread amongst smugglers who used them to move illicit items.

Hunting is on the decline, however electrical pulse fishing, unlawful however broadly practiced within the south, is partly guilty. The electrical pulse paralyzes the otter. Most die.

The fishermen who have been questioned earlier every had electrocution units on their boats, seen regardless of makes an attempt to disguise them with carpets.

Al-Sheikhly stated this would possibly account for why otters are exhausting to identify. “Otters are smart, they know they are under threat and change their behaviors.”

Adaptability served them effectively all through Iraq’s tumultuous historical past. The otters have been feared extinct when Saddam drained the marshes within the Nineties to flush out hiding Shiite rebels. Since 2003, they’ve needed to navigate a new Iraq the place rising city sprawl and industrialization has taken priority.

As a consequence, Iraqi marsh communities are more and more dropping contact with the wetlands they dwell in.

On an island grazing floor for water buffalos, a marsh Arab boy tended to the animals. In the background, oil flares shot plumes of acrid smoke into the air — a ubiquitous sight in crude-rich southern Iraq.

Water buffalos convene in the marshes next too grazing areas still looked after by local marsh Arab communities in Chibayish, Iraq, Saturday, May, 1, 2021.
Water buffalos convene within the marshes subsequent too grazing areas nonetheless sorted by native marsh Arab communities in Chibayish, Iraq, Saturday, May, 1, 2021.
AP

But the best enemy to Iraq’s endemic otter species is an incalculable one: Water.

Cruising by way of a vast waterway, al-Sheikhly stated that simply final yr the whole channel had been dry. Flooding re-filled it, however little rainfall this yr threatens ranges once more. Experts stated it’s already lowering by one centimeter a day.

One native girl, Um Muntadhar, stated when the water dries up, the birds migrate and her livestock dies. “It is not livable here anymore,” she stated.

The U.N. estimates at the very least 250 sq. kilometers (96 sq. miles) of fertile land in Iraq is misplaced yearly to desertification. Rising salinity will probably drive out if not wipe away endemic species.

Iraqis largely blame Turkey’s Ilisu dam undertaking for shortages. Turkish officers stated Iraq’s request that Ankara launch a set quantity of water per yr is not possible within the age of local weather change.

“So much is unpredictable, we suffer,” stated one Turkish official, who spoke on situation of anonymity.

In an open lake on the cusp of the Hammar marshes, al-Sheikhly halted the boat and rapidly eliminated his footwear.

He appeared from a distance like a marshland messiah: knee-deep in water, curly hair dancing within the wind, anchored by a wood stick.

Threatened from all sides, environmentalists say it is going to take a miracle to push for conservation of the realm.

But al-Sheikhly was absorbed in one thing unseen. “Listen, listen,” he stated.

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