Written by Geoff Hann, Karen Dabrowska and Tina Townsend-Greaves
In a historic first, Iraq announced the creation of its first national park, Mesopotamia Marshland National Park, in July 2013. The Mesopotamia Marshland National Park is a unique wetlands complex rich in wildlife. Located in southern Iraq, the park is considered to provide an ecological bridge between the Africa region (termed the Arabic region of the African plate) and the Eurasian region. It is an important resting and feeding site for millions of migratory birds. With its unique confl uence of water and land plus the sheer size of the wetlands, it has a richness of birds and other wildlife, as well as a high ecological value. Endemic birds include the Basra reed warbler (Acrocephalus griseldis) and Iraq babbler (Turdoides altirostris), the Iraqi subspecies of the little grebe (Tachybaptus rufi collis iraquensis) and the African darter (Anhinga rufa chantrei). Mammals found in the park include the smooth-coated otter (Lutra perspicillata maxwelli) and Bunn’s short-tailed bandicoot rat (Erythronesokia bunnii). The park also contains endemic fish, such as bunnei (Barbus sharpeyi).
The marsh area around the national park is also home to indigenous tribes with rich cultures and traditions. Still practising their customs today, they hand down their knowledge of the use of traditional, natural resources to new generations. Although their heritage is strongly supported by the park, owing in part to draining of the Marshes in the 1990s, there are fewer villages actually located within it than in the past.
In addition to the above, more than 60 archaeological sites have been documented throughout the area. Although these are still unexplored, they add to its historical importance and attraction for tourism. Despite this richness and diversity, the new park still faces a number of challenges, including uncontrolled hunting and fishing, the use of dangerous chemicals in the area, the introduction of exotic species, uncontrolled reed harvesting, buffalo breeding and development of settlements and infrastructure, as well as damage and looting of archaeological sites. To address these, the park’s management has set out five main objectives:
• to secure and maintain the habitat conditions necessary to protect significant species, groups of species, biotic communities or physical features of the environment where these require specific human manipulation for optimum management;
• to facilitate scientific research and environmental monitoring as primary activities associated with sustainable resource management;
• to develop limited areas for public education and appreciation of the characteristics of the habitats concerned and of the work of wildlife management;
• to eliminate and thereafter prevent exploitation or occupation inimical to the purposes of designation; and
• to deliver such benefits to people living within the designated area as are consistent with the other objectives of management.
After the draining of the Marshes in the 1990s, water, vegetation and wildlife are steadily starting to return. As it continues to address local and regional conservation and development challenges, Mesopotamia Marshland National Park not only represents history as Iraq’s first national protected area, but also serves as an inspiring solution for people and nature in an area once devastated by conflict.