Birding in a War-Torn Nation

U.S. soldiers cooperate with local scientists and conservationists in an effort to protect Iraq’s rich wildlife heritage, including a marsh that provides vital habitat

  • Ken Olsen
  • Dec 01, 2009
JONATHAN TROUERN-TREND, who has been birding avidly since he was 12, was on his initial tour of duty in Iraq when he saw his first whiskered tern. The seabird was one of several Middle Eastern species that had fascinated the 41-year-old Connecticut National Guardsman long before he spent a year west of Baghdad with the 118th Medical Support Battalion. During that year he discovered that, despite Iraq’s decades of war, the region still harbors a rich diversity of wildlife.

Trouern-Trend logged 122 bird species while deployed in Iraq in 2004, including olivaceous warblers, blue-cheeked bee-eaters, hoopoes and white-cheeked bulbos. Birding gave him optimism. “Even when there’s really terrible things going on,” he says, “there’s something that can give hope that [war] is not the sum of reality.” He started a blog that became the book Birding Babylon.

Now Trouern-Trend—an American Red Cross worker in civilian life—is back in Iraq with the Connecticut Guard, rejoining an informal network of soldiers who are helping scientists safeguard the country’s wildlife. Azzam Alwash—head of Nature Iraq, a private organization that seeks to restore Iraq’s natural environment—says, “We do not have access to all of Iraq. Birding warriors like Jonathan have been helping fill a gap in our knowledge.”

The birding warriors have no formal relationship with Nature Iraq. Still, their sightings help scientists track the distribution of various species, an important activity because birds are at the forefront of Nature Iraq’s efforts to identify and protect critical ecosystems. “Birds are one of the most sensitive indicators of a healthy environment,” Alwash says.

Nature Iraq is having some success. It persuaded the Iraqi government to sign an international treaty to protect the Huwaizeh Marshes on the Iraq-Iran border. Next up: Advocating for the creation of Mesopotamian Marshlands National Park in the Huwaize Marshes.

The marshes lie near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in southern Iraq. They once covered more than 9,000 square miles, nearly four times the size of Everglades National Park. These wetlands are among Europe and Asia’s most important migratory-bird wintering areas. In spring, snowmelt flushes the brackish water from the marshes just as fish are spawning, birds are migrating and marsh reeds are emerging from their winter hibernation. “It is the connection between the mountains of Kurdistan and the corals of the Persian Gulf,” says Alwash, who grew up nearby. “It makes sense to start with [protecting] that central link, then working north.”

The marshes support the world’s only population of Basra reed warblers and are the “center of gravity” for the Iraq babbler, the gray hypocolius and the Iraqi subspecies of the hooded crow and little grebe, says Mudhafar Salim, head of Nature Iraq’s bird division. Globally threatened birds such as the pygmy cormorant, Eurasian bittern and red-breasted goose also find refuge there, as do vulnerable mammals such as the smooth-coated otter.

Saddam Hussein started draining, burning and poisoning the wetlands following an uprising in southern Iraq after the first Gulf War. More than 90 percent of the marshes were reduced to a parched expanse. The United Nations Environment Program called this loss one of the world’s greatest environmental disasters, akin to destruction of the Amazon rain forest. “Millions of birds changed their migration routes,” Salim says. “Some birds were pushed to the brink of extinction or vanished.”

Alwash and his wife, Suzanne, started Eden Again in 1999 to bring attention to the catastrophe. Their effort gave rise to Nature Iraq, which now employs nearly 50 scientists. They have been helped with donations of spotting scopes, binoculars and camera gear from U.S. soldiers. “I’m amazed at all these guys accomplish,” says Trouern-Trend, who restarted his blog after returning to Iraq and plans to start work on a book about interactions between humans and nature in the Middle East.

Marsh residents, meanwhile, started breaking dikes and returning water to wetlands after Saddam’s government fell in 2003. Five years later, nearly 70 percent of the marshes were flooded. Almost all of the bird species returned, albeit in fewer numbers. Today, however, droughts, as well as dams in Iraq, Turkey and Syria, threaten to turn the marshes again into a wasteland. “We witnessed the disaster of drainage again,” Salim says. “The serious lack of water threatens the whole ecosystem.”

Alwash is optimistic: “The marshes survived seven years of being 90 percent dry. They can survive two years of drought.” In addition, Iraq’s environment minister backs protecting the marshes as the country’s first national park. The people who live in and near the marshes also support restoring and protecting the rich wetlands complex, because it sustains their livelihood. “In order to maintain the marshes of Iraq, we will need the support of nature lovers to reach an agreement with Turkey over the use of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers,” Alwash says. Once the marshlands are protected, Nature Iraq will focus on other critical areas, including gazelle and oryx habitat.

To build support for its efforts, Nature Iraq published the Field Guide to the Birds of Iraq two years ago in conjunction with BirdLife International, a global consortium for bird protection. The group also produced a children’s book about Iraq’s birds and plans to take its program into classrooms in 2010. “You want to work on the next generation,” Alwash says. He also wants to work on the international community. Next spring, Alwash plans to try to take a small group of ecotourists through the marshes. “Who wants to come see Eden?” he asks.

“I hope to come back with binoculars—but not my weapon,” Trouern-Trend says.

Longtime National Wildlife contributor Ken Olsen lives in Portland, Oregon.

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