Iraqi Flamingo Poaching Prompts Backlash

Flamingos in India. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Publicized poaching of flamingos in Iraq’s southern marshes has prompted public revulsion and government response. As videos emerged on social media in late December depicting the hunting and consumption of flamingos, protests erupted in Maysan Governorate and the city of Nasiriyah demanding that the government combat poaching. One video, posted on December 25, depicts a group of four men wading to shore and hauling a net containing dozens of dead flamingos. Another picture portrays a man butchering a dead flamingo with a short knife. The images generated fierce backlash on social media. Iraqi writer Nazlı Tarzi termed the poaching a “bird genocide,” ruefully adding, “What may appear unimaginable to the outside world happens [today] in Iraq.” The Mesopotamian Marshes in southern Iraq, part of what the World Wildlife Fund calls “the largest river delta in the Middle East,” are an oasis for wetland birds. Several of them, including the marshes in which the birds thrive, are designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The bird population is also threatened by environmental destruction. Hydrological engineering projects have obstructed water flow to the marshes, and as the marshes dry up, dozens of animal species, as well as vegetation and plankton, have vanished. There is large debate over the reason for the spike in flamingo-hunting. Observers and media blame poverty, ostentatious dinner parties, vague definitions of poaching, the July 2016 merger of the environment and health ministries, and the ongoing fight against ISIL.

In response to demonstrations in which protesters held posters featuring stills from the videos and photos of flamingos, Maysan’s governor implemented tougher restrictions on poaching. On December 26, Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resources directed the governments of Basra, Dhi Qar, and Maysan to curb hunting and protect the marshes’ biodiversity. Chief of Iraq’s marshland restoration, Sameera Abd Mohi, urged local governments to sanction individuals found trading, possessing, or illegally hunting rare birds. An Iraqi academic has even recommended that clerics use fatwas, a decree on an Islamic law by a religious authority, to stem poaching in the country’s marshes.

Despite these measures, the poaching continues as new images of faded pink flamingos resting on the muddy ground before poachers’ feet circulate via social media. Activists and local officials also complain that a lack of awareness, resources, and enforcement hampers effective preservation efforts. Some commentators are frustrated with the perceived lack of government action, such as a Poland-based journalist who lamented, “It’s so sad that authorities remain silent.” Another Twitter user glumly reported, “The illegal hunting and selling [of flamingos] in south Iraq continues.”