SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq—Few parts of the world look more hostile to big cats than the rugged wilderness that flanks the northern Iran-Iraq frontier.
Laced with land mines and roamed by packs of dedicated poachers, it's an environment seemingly calculated to imperil even the most fleet-footed animal. Yet this is the place the world's largest leopard calls home.
Once spread across the Caucasus region, Persian leopards now are relegated to this former war zone, along with a few isolated pockets of rural Iran. Here, hundreds of thousands of Iranian and Iraqi soldiers bludgeoned one another to death in some of the late 20th century's most brutal battles. Even today, border guards patrol the once fiercely contested high ground.
But through it all the leopard has endured, and oddly enough, the region's violent past has contributed to its survival. As part of the decade-long conflict, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and his Iranian counterparts planted an estimated 20 million to 30 million land mines in the 1980s. Two decades after the last of the big minefields were laid, the explosives continue to maim and kill local residents.
But the mines also have become accidental protection for the leopards, discouraging poachers from entering certain areas.
And now interest in clearing the land mines throws into sharp relief the conflict between human and wildlife interests. Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdistan region is developing swiftly, and along with that comes hot pursuit of oil and gas deposits—many of which lie in leopard-heavy highlands—to fuel its likely bid for independence.
Conservation efforts have struggled to gain traction in large swaths of the Middle East. As in many developing regions, the welfare of the environment is a distant consideration amid economic peril and political flux. But the emergence of the Islamic State jihadist group, which now controls swathes of Syria and Iraq and which was recently camped on Iran's doorstep, has pushed the plight of the Persian leopard even further from local decision-makers' thoughts.
That's why the region's conservationists now find themselves in the not-so-comfortable position of opposing some land-mine clearance efforts. Clearing the way for people to return to those areas could put the leopards back at humans' mercy, they say. (Read about how Mozambique is clearing land mines.)
"Environmentally speaking, mines are great, because they keep people out," said Azzam Alwash, head of the conservation group Nature Iraq.
Hunters at Bay
Ahmed Kurdi holds court in his brother's roadside restaurant outside the Iraqi city Sulaymaniyah, commonly known by its Kurdish name Slemani. His squat build and soft hands seem ill-suited to making stiff climbs in the Zagros Mountains, but Kurdi is an experienced marksman who is keen to tell stories of hunting leopards.
"My cousin and I were hunting goats near his village in Iran when we saw this big animal moving slowly high up on the rocks," Kurdi said, mimicking his shooting motion. "It was a long way away, but it was a challenge that I couldn't resist."
The market for leopard pelts has mostly dried up, but there's still a certain cachet associated with ensnaring such an exotic creature. As a result, the harsh penalties attached to killing leopards haven't done much to dissuade determined trophy hunters.
The land mines, though, do a good job of keeping people off certain peaks, and these have become the leopards' favorite haunts.
"A lot of the animals now stay up in the high mountains where all the land mines are. We can't really go there, so we can't really hunt," Kurdi said in explaining his reluctant decision to hang up his rifle.
Not that leopards are entirely immune themselves to the hazards of land mines.
They're nimble, spend much of their time in trees or on rocks, and are light enough when their weight is spread over four legs not to trigger anti-tank mines, which typically are activated by payloads of more than 176 pounds (80 kilograms).
But at least two are thought to have been killed by triggering the prongs and tripwires of the region's ubiquitous Italian-made V69 antipersonnel mines. A video has also surfaced in which a leopard appears to have bled to death after losing a leg while navigating an explosive-laden mountain pass.
It might seem extraordinary that deadly devices have contributed to the Persian leopard's continued presence in the Zagros Mountains, but the prospects of the region's animal life have always been intimately wrapped up with the fortunes of the local people.
Hunters aside, Alwash fears the swift degradation of the leopards' habitats if mine removal frees up land for development around Sulaymaniyah and other small cities—which continue to expand, suggesting his worries are well-founded.
A mountain that was de-mined near Iraq's Lake Dukan a few years ago was promptly appropriated by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the dominant local political party, and then fenced off and zoned for construction.
Some Iraqis don't even wait for the "all clear" before traipsing through mine-ridden terrain.
"Every day we have to stop operations because people are driving animals through the minefields," said Chris Bull, a project manager at Sterling Global Operations, which, like most mine clearance organizations in Iraqi Kurdistan, is funded by international energy companies pursuing new oil and gas reserves.
In the late 1980s, the Iraqi government accelerated its eventual destruction of over 4,000 Kurdish villages in northern Iraq. In doing so, Saddam Hussein inadvertently boosted the animal population by reducing the number of people living in the mountains and warding off resident hunters.
A few years later, however, many of these rural families came streaming home after the United States imposed a no-fly zone over northern Iraq—which pushed back government forces—and the mountains' wildlife suffered as a consequence, according to local environmentalists.
Spotted in Iran
In Iran, things have panned out a little differently for both big cats and the local people who have settled among them.
The Persian leopard population is significantly bigger here, earning the cat a far more prominent place in local mythology than in neighboring Iraq. "It was a symbol of power and courage in ancient Persia," said Amirhossein Khaleghi, a co-founder of Iran's Persian Leopard Project. The leopard's skin, he says, was used as a flag by several imperial dynasties.
This folkloric significance hasn't made leopards' lives any easier, though. Iran's roads are notoriously perilous—according to the World Health Organization, the country has one of the highest rates of traffic deaths in the world, with more than 20,000 people killed on the roads each year—and an increasing number of leopards have been killed while cutting across traffic. Others find themselves trapped without food by impassable highways.
More threatening still is pervasive overhunting and the increasingly combative stance of farmers fearful of losing sheep and cattle to the predator.
"Beyond the nature reserves, the amount of prey is declining due to rampant poaching," said Arash Ghoddousi, Khaleghi's partner in establishing Iran's Persian Leopard Project, who is studying how poachers and leopards battle for the same quarry.
"Leopards are having to go nearer villages to hunt prey, and this has brought them into conflict with livestock farmers, who use poison or kill the animal with a rifle," Ghoddousi said.
In both Iran and Iraq, it's forest rangers who are charged with protecting the leopard and pursuing those who hunt it, and despite the challenges they've performed relatively well in penalizing illegal hunters and chasing down bazaar vendors who market leopard pelts.
But the experiences of a small Iraqi forest police checkpoint perched high above the town of Qaradagh in northern Iraq illustrate the complications of safeguarding local wildlife.
Whenever the ten-strong company hears gunshots, they're supposed to fan out and patrol the surrounding hills, but the limited fuel allowance for their lone pickup truck means they seldom venture much beyond their post.
Fortunately for nearby leopards and their prey, they're rarely called upon nowadays.
"The hunting pressure is decreasing. We haven't seen leopard trails since July," said Araz, the unit commander, whose four shoulder stripes mark his nine years of service in the force.
But he and his men are furious at the leniency the dominant local politician, Sheikh al-Jaffar, a former minister in the Kurdish Regional Government, or KRG, has shown to those caught hunting illegal game. Anyone spotted with a hunting rifle in a nature reserve is immediately disarmed and turned over to the local magistrate, but the frequency with which they reappear in the mountains has left the forest patrol disenchanted.
Their colleagues across the border suffer from equally debilitating restrictions.
The Iranian government issues a limited number of hunting licenses every year, but many villagers supplement their meager diets with meat from the mountains, which has sparked a fierce conflict between the locals and law enforcement officials. The same dispute is seen the world over, but far from empowering these wardens with significant clout to combat those who threaten protected species, officials have hamstrung them with an unforgiving legal framework.
"Rangers are allowed to carry weapons, but if a ranger accidently kills a poacher, he will go through a long court experience, and probably go to prison and maybe get executed," Ghoddousi said.
The Persian leopard is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Calculating just how endangered the Persian leopard has become is intensely tricky, though. There are no official counts, and independent efforts to tally numbers have been continually stumped by thieves stealing the necessary equipment. The best estimates gathered by the IUCN put the total number of leopards at somewhere around a thousand, with the majority in Iran.
All ten of the camera traps Nature Iraq uses to photograph and identify leopards have been stolen, as have 24 of the 80 devices the Persian Leopard Project set up around Iran's Golestan National Park.
Both the Persian Leopard Project and Panthera, a big-cat conservation group, have nevertheless hit upon similar estimates. They place the total Persian leopard population in the 500-800 range, but fear a further reduction in numbers as its habitat shrinks.
And then there's the regional flux. The Islamic State jihadist group has lost momentum in recent weeks, as American-led air strikes weaken its assaults on some cities, but they're still running amok across parts of Iraq. Affording leopards additional protections now, while also devoting resources to publicize the cat's plight, would likely smack of misplaced priorities.
But from a leopard's perspective, some good might have come from the Middle East's turmoil. Every year, the KRG devotes some humanitarian funds toward de-mining patches of land that are of no interest to energy firms—notably leopard-heavy highlands.
This year's allowance has been diverted to the Kurdish peshmerga forces to bolster their efforts to repel the Islamic State. "Political tensions with southern Iraq as well as the ongoing fighting seem to have slowed the release of further minefields for clearance," says Bull, the mine clearance manager.
The leopards may yet remain hidden in their minefields.
Both Iranian and Iraqi Kurdish authorities have talked of opening more nature reserves, but there's also every reason to believe the leopard could follow the Persian lion and tiger into extinction.
Officials have shown little appetite to slow energy companies' growth into leopard habitats, and 95 percent of the KRG's economy is derived from oil and gas. Young Iranians appear to be waking up to their extraordinary array of wildlife, but hunting is so firmly rooted in the rural bastions where the government gains much of its support that it seems unlikely it will clamp down too hard on this traditional pursuit.
Ahmed Kurdi, the retired hunter, offers an optimistic, if wishful, prognosis.
"The leopard is very strong," he said. "They're incredible animals. We couldn't kill them all even if we wanted to."
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