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A new effort to preserve Iraq's rich biodiversity, from mountains to marshes

As an international conference noted this week, the world's biodiversity is threatened. Iraq is no exception – but before anything can be done, it needs Iraqis who understand the problems.

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Kurdish boys in the foothills of Mount Permagrone manage their flocks. Environmentalists are trying to protect this biologically diverse region.

Jane Arraf

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On this mountainside in Iraqi Kurdistan, botanists are gathering hundreds of plant samples in an effort to protect their country’s diverse environment, ranging from northern mountain ranges to the marshes of southern Iraq.

Mount Permagrone is home to one-sixth of the roughly 3,300 plant varieties intended to be collected and preserved in a new national herbarium – a catalog of the country’s plant specimens that was looted and destroyed in Baghdad after Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.

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It’s also near one of the major tributaries of the Tigris River that, together with the waters of the Euphrates, forms Iraq’s southern marshes. Major swaths of the marshes, the biggest wetlands in the Middle East, were drained by Mr. Hussein and are just now coming back to life.

“Those who want the marshes restored understand that there is an intrinsic connection between the mountains of Kurdistan and the marshes of Iraq,” says environmentalist Azzam Alwash, whose Nature Iraq organization has shifted from monitoring bird life in the south to a wider mission: protecting key biodiversity areas.

“If I want the marshes restored and managed properly,” Mr. Alwash says, “I have to not only protect the marshes but protect the integrity of the environment in Kurdistan because it’s all one habitat.”

Iraq recently became party to the international Convention on Biological Diversity, aimed at protecting biodiversity and encouraging sustainable development. Signatories to the convention are meeting in Japan for an Oct. 18- 29 summit.

But Dr. Alwash has plenty of his own ideas already, including creating a national park in the marshes. Such a park would commit the government to regulating the water flow to prevent the wetlands from stagnating and plant and bird life from disappearing. That’s a challenge amid competing demands for Iraq’s increasingly limited water – including those by the oil industry.

His group is also trying to have the mountain declared a special biodiversity site, which would protect it from development in the rapidly expanding city of Sulaymaniyah nearby. But with protecting the environment a tough sell in war-torn Iraq, Alwash hopes to appeal to the economic interests of Kurdish residents in the north, promoting ecotourism activities such as kayaking and rock climbing.

'A new generation of botanists'

Training young botanists left behind as Iraq’s scientific research stagnated is also part of the broader effort to preserve Iraq’s biodiversity, an effort that has involved elder scientists who have long lived in exile .

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“Our goal is to create a new generation of Iraqi botanists,” says Ihsan al-Shehbaz, who left Iraq in 1981. “The country has been deprived of proper science for the last 35 years.”

Dr. Shehbaz, who worked on his 37-volume Flora of China for years, is now helping to establish a digital herbarium of Iraqi plants that can be used by scholars around the world, as well as a seed bank and botanical gardens. The online herbarium would update a 12-volume Flora of Iraq he began in conjunction with Britain’s Royal Botanical Gardens but abandoned during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

“We need to know what there is there before we do anything else,” he says by telephone from the United States, where he now lives. “A great deal of the wealth of knowledge is basically being lost because no one is recording it.”

Understanding pollution

Familiarity with the richness of Iraq’s biodiversity is indeed essential to preserving it, say other botanists working in Iraq.

John Morse, a retired professor of entomology at Clemson University in South Carolina, is teaching young biologists here to use insects to monitor water quality. Since different species of insects die at different levels of pollution, monitoring insect life can provide an early-warning system.

“There is not even a fresh-water biology program anywhere in the country,” Mr. Morse says, “so what I’m attempting to do is teach a first generation of freshwater biologists how to understand the biology of the water and how to use insects to monitor pollution.”

In Iraq’s south, oil drilling is affecting the water quality; in rural areas of the north, waste from villages and livestock dumped directly into rivers are the main culprits, he says. While Iraq is home to several hundred varieties of caddis flies – insects that are among the first to die in polluted waters – the scientific literature records only five, says Dr. Morse, a world authority on the mothlike insects.

“In order to use the research to tell you that the water’s polluted you have to know what organisms occur in that region, and they don’t know,” he says.