I first heard about the endangered Persian leopard when I was researching a story about the restoration of the Mesopotamian Marshes in southern Iraq. It is in some ways a magical story…it certainly is a story of new possibilities. And it is definitely a story of hope.
One journalist suggests that in many ways, the Persian leopard could be considered the Kurds’ spirit animal: persecuted, squeezed from all sides, survivors finding refuge in the mountains. A Dutch film, ‘Sidik and the Panther’, offers finding the Persian leopard as a metaphor of hope for light after a dark time. If Sidik can find the leopard again in Northern Iraq, he believes, the region can be declared a national park and the mountains can be protected.
And it is the story of Hana Raza, a biologist from Nature Iraq who has been working to protect the Persian leopard and other flora and fauna in Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq and Iran for more than a decade. It is not easy work.
Hana was born in a Peshmerga camp that was bombarded by chemical weapons when she was only four months old. Her parents sought refuge in the mountains of northern Iraq – the same mountains she now works to protect. Korsh Ararat, who started working with Nature Iraq in 2007, recruited Hana from Sulaymaniyah University in 2009. Soon after, she began the group’s mammal conservation efforts and now leads the leopard project. When he returned from the UK, Ararat began teaching at the university, and in 2016, Hana invited him back to Nature Iraq to work part-time on the leopard project.
While this kind of conservation work may seem revolutionary in a place where environmental concerns have long taken a backseat to human conflict, it’s actually an outgrowth of their distinct experiences growing up in a war zone, says Erica Gies in a long article published in bioGraphic in 2018. They hope that saving the leopard could catalyze the entire country to shift direction and warm Iraqi hearts to nature and conservation. Ultimately, Hana envisions a “peace park” in the Kurdish region that straddles Iraq and Iran.
“Growing up and living in a region of the world where instability and war have been the immediate reality, I have always found that the bigger picture has been lost on my nation: that species conservation and the preservation of ecological stability is the uniting concern of mankind; that conservation is necessary for the future well-being of the entire planet,” she says.
The Persian leopard, now the biggest cat in western Asia, ranges widely around a dangerous area – Iraq’s Kurdish mountains; along Iran’s northern border with Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia; in Afghanistan’s mountains; and in the Caucus Mountains of southwestern Russia and Georgia.
In Iran, home to about 65% of the remaining Persian leopards, researchers documented 147 leopards killed between 2000 and 2015. Although Iran created many protected areas between the 1950s and 1970s, enforcing those protections hasn’t been a priority and there has been poaching in many leopard habitats.
The Pirmagrun mountain in Iraqi Kurdistan is one of its last refuges, but the ancient oak forests that once covered the mountain are disappearing, threatening the leopard’s existence. There are only between 800 and 1,200 where they used to be common. Ironically, the millions of mines laid along the Iran-Iraq border starting in the 1980s may be more protective than anything else because it slows down illegal logging and hunting.
The Qara Dagh – a series of mountain peaks and valleys – is one of the few places where the Persian leopard has been photographed in Iraqi Kurdistan. In 2011, a camera trap on Jazhna Mountain captured an image of a powerful male leopard passing through. Four years and two more pictures later, while setting another camera trap near the border with Iran, Ararat came upon a leopard in the flesh, just 10 meters away. But Hana hasn’t yet seen one herself.
Efforts to set up an international-standard national park within the region have failed amid economic and political instability. In 2014, the Halgurd Sakran National Park was named the region’s first national park, but the project was derailed by the rise of Isis, which took control of Mosul, Iraq’s second city, that year. In 2018, plans for a transnational protected park, which would have included mountains in Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan, were put on hold when nine conservation scientists and researchers from the Tehran-based Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation were accused of espionage. Hana hopes that they will be released so they can resume their conservation work.
Almost as rare as the Persian leopard flagship is the legal framework that allowed for the establishment of the Qara Dagh Nature Reserve, says IUCN Netherlands. ‘Nature Iraq managed to consolidate an agreement with the Kurdistan Regional Government through a partnership with its Environmental Protection and Improvement Board that recognised Qara Dagh as the first formally protected area of Kurdistan,’ it explains.
Since 2001, through its land acquisition fund, IUCN NL has provided funds for local NGOs, like Nature Iraq, to acquire threatened patches of wilderness to protect and connect the often fragmented habitats of endangered species. The land acquisition fund is made possible through the Dutch Postcode Lottery.
IUCN NL was able to support Nature Iraq to establish the reserve. ‘Instead of providing financial support for land purchase, which was not applicable as the land titles were not for sale, IUCN NL provided funds for urgent management activities, equipment, staff salaries and the construction of a sustainable eco-lodge.’
The Qara Dagh Nature Reserve covers nearly 2,300 hectares and has close to a thousand plant species, over 180 different recorded bird species and 15 different mammal species. Nature Iraq has listed Qara Dagh as a Key Biodiversity Area (KBA) and is responsible for managing the reserve.
Now the Qara Dagh Eco Lodge, a bed and breakfast facility 65 km south of Sulaimani city, offers “ecologically sustainable, low impact, culturally sensitive, learning-oriented, and community supporting tourism [that] is small-scale, compatible with the environment, educational, and provides benefits to the communities close to the Qara Dagh protected area.”
Iran has several ecotourism-focused lodges, including one recently built in the leopard’s territory near Golestan National Park, says leopard researcher Arash Ghoddousi, who has studied various aspects of Persian leopard-livestock interactions in his native Iran. “The effects of this lodge on the local community in terms of providing alternative livelihood to the people and educating them about nature has been incredible,” he says. But he acknowledges that the region’s political instability makes sustainable international tourism challenging.
“It’s easy to feel like you are powerless to stop the destruction of habitat,” says Hana. “But over the last century, the Kurdish people have sacrificed so much to keep control of these mountains. All those sacrifices will be meaningless if the leopards and the other native animals become extinct.”
In 2017, Hana won a Future For Nature Award, which brought her international exposure. An interview with a Dutch newspaper in 2017 drew the attention of the Kurdish-Dutch filmmaker who made the film about her work called ‘Sidik and the Leopard’, and the attention of IUCN Netherlands which helped with establishing the Qara Dagh protected area.
“Hana’s application gives me hope for our messed-up world,” said Simon Stuart of Future For Nature’s International Selection Committee. “If a woman can spearhead innovative, dynamic conservation initiatives in Iraqi Kurdistan, then many things are possible. She is clearly willing to do the difficult thing, including seeking collaboration with conservationists in neighbouring Iran. Her work with communities and enforcement officials appears to have led to increasing wildlife populations where you would not expect them.”
Hana hopes that through their work, people in the outside world will hear another narrative about the region other than war, and that tourists will come to visit Qara Dagh. It is not like people see in the media, she says.
Patience, Peace, and Persian Leopards. Erica Gies, bioGraphic, 9.11.2018
Last chance for the Persian leopard: the fight to save Iraqi Kurdistan’s forests. The Guardian, Jun. 20, 2020
Perspective: Movie Sidik and the Panther. Future For Nature, Sep. 18, 2020
Hana Raza, Award winner 2017. Future for Nature.
EJ InSight: Reporting from Iraq — with Both Camera and Notebook. Erica Gies
Persian leopards in Iran. People’s Trust for Endangered Species.
Hana Raza | Conservation Optimism in the Time of War. Presentation on You Tube, Global Biofest.
Protecting the Persian leopard by creating the first nature reserve in Kurdistan. IUCN Netherlands, Sep. 3, 2020.
Iran charges five wildlife activists with capital offences. The Guardian, Oct. 24, 2018