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Sunday, 16 February, 2003, 00:17 GMT
Foes urged to spare Iraq's wildlife
Oiled greater flamingo   Colin Mills/BirdLife International
Victim of the 1991 war: A greater flamingo (Image: Colin Mills/BirdLife International)

Any war in Iraq should be fought in ways that protect its wildlife, conservationists say.

BirdLife International has sent the UN Security Council and the Iraqi Government details of the main environmental threats from a war.

It says the impacts would affect local people, and would persist for a long time afterwards.

BirdLife is urging potential combatants to avoid deliberately targeting or damaging globally important wildlife and habitats.

It has sent a dossier of information, maps and photographs to the government in Baghdad and to the five UN Security Council permanent members - China, France, Russia, the UK and the US.

The dossier, which explains the environmental threats to people and sites, has also gone to the UN Environment Programme (Unep), and is available on the internet.

BirdLife is a global alliance of non-governmental national conservation organisations, and works in more than 100 countries.

Icon of conflict

Its director, Dr Michael Rands, said: "Until recently the impact of war on nature has often been ignored or obscured by the conflict itself.

"As the 1990-1991 Gulf war showed, such conflicts have devastating effects on the environment, biodiversity and the quality of life of local people long after the cessation of hostilities.

White-headed duck   Dr Tony Martin
Iraq's endangered white-headed duck (Image: Dr Tony Martin)
"It was the heart-rending image of an oiled bird that became a symbol of the environmental impact of the first Gulf war. BirdLife hopes images of oiled birds do not once again fill our television screens in 2003."

BirdLife's dossier is based on the environmental damage reported in 1991, and on data from the more recent conflicts in the Balkans and Afghanistan.

It identifies several risks to natural habitats, which will also affect people:

  • physical destruction and disturbance from the use of weapons
  • toxic pollution from oil spills or oil well fires through fighting or deliberate damage
  • radiological, chemical or toxic contamination from the use of weapons of mass destruction or conventional bombing of military or industrial sites
  • physical destruction of wildlife and habitats because of increased human pressure caused by mass movements of refugees.
Other risks, BirdLife says, include the burning of vegetation; the extinction of endemic species (those found nowhere else); and the armies' role in damaging the deserts.

Record destruction

Mike Evans visited the Gulf for BirdLife in 1991. He said: "Waders and waterbirds will be particularly at risk from oil spills.

Dead green turtle   M Gray
A dead green turtle (Image: M Gray)
"Iraq is at the northern end of the Gulf, one of the top five sites in the world for wintering wader birds and a key refuelling area for hundreds of thousands of migratory waterbirds during the spring and autumn."

BirdLife says the 1991 war saw "by far the largest marine oil spills in history, with six to eight million barrels of crude oil spilled, severely polluting 560 kilometres (350 miles) of coast, and totally obliterating intertidal ecosystems".

Iraq is home to one endemic wetland bird, the Basra reed warbler, and to five endemic or near-endemic marshland sub-species. It has 42 important bird areas, and the Mesopotamian marshes endemic bird area.

Expropriated people

BirdLife says the marshes shrank between 1991 and now from 15,000 sq km (3.7m hectares) to about 50 (12.25 thousand ha).

The deliberate destruction of the marshes by Iraq, according to Unep, was devastating, "with significant implications for global biodiversity from Siberia to southern Africa".

The bandicoot rat and a sub-species of otter are believed to have been driven to extinction as a result.

On the human scale, the Ma'dan people who have lived in the marshes for 5,000 years have lost their traditional homeland.

See also:

16 May 01 | Science/Nature
13 Mar 01 | Science/Nature
04 Aug 00 | Middle East
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