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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 January 2007, 00:56 GMT
Boost for Iraq bird populations
Basra reed warbler  Image: Birdlife International
The Basra reed warbler may be doing better than expected (A F A Hawkins/BirdLife)
The first comprehensive survey of bird populations in Iraq seems to show that conservation efforts are working, but some species remain threatened.

Conservationists have had grave concerns for birds in Iraq since the drainage of 90% of Iraq's marshes by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

The marshes were one of the Middle East's most wildlife-rich areas and supported important bird populations.

Details will appear in a field guide and in several scientific papers.

Clearly, Iraq has a responsibility for their protection
Richard Porter, BirdLife International
So far, three winter surveys and two summer surveys have been conducted by Iraqi biologists.

But the paucity of other data on birds in the country makes it difficult to compare the present situation with anything else, in order to determine how numbers have shifted up or down over the past few decades.

However, the researchers can make some broad statements about the health of bird populations in Iraq.

"We have got some surveys that were carried out in 1979. We can't say the numbers have changed, but we can say no species has disappeared. That's the good news," said Richard Porter, Middle East adviser with Birdlife International.

"In fact, birds like the Basra reed warbler, which were thought to be globally threatened, may no longer be globally threatened simply due to the fact that they have been found in good numbers."

Marsh recovery

This might be down to two factors, said Mr Porter. Firstly, the researchers say the two summer surveys could be the first of their kind ever carried out in Iraq.

Iraq marshes, BirdLife International
The marshes are undergoing a recovery
Secondly, the re-flooding of the marshes after the US-led invasion of 2003 may already be delivering benefits to bird populations in the region.

About 40% of the marshlands area of Iraq has been restored to its 1970s condition.

Large areas were drained in the 1990s to punish the Marsh Arabs for rebelling against former leader Saddam Hussein. Diversion of water further upstream by some of Iraq's neighbours also hit the wetlands.

Sometimes identified as the site of the Garden of Eden, the Mesopotamian marshes have been home to the Marsh Arabs for at least 5,000 years. They once covered an area of 20,000-15,000 sq km - twice the size of the Florida Everglades. By 2001, only one-tenth of the marshlands remained intact.

There is an international effort to restore the network of watercourses which provided inhabitants with water for drinking and farming, and supported the region's unique ecology.

Conservation responsibility

This includes bird populations of national and international importance.

The survey recorded 150 or more species of birds, including six globally threatened species - among them the marbled teal, the white-headed duck, the Basra reed warbler and the greater spotted eagle.

Marbled teal  Image: BirdLife International
Birds like the marbled teal are globally threatened
But there are many others considered to be of "conservation significance", such as bitterns, corncrake and several species of duck.

"Clearly, Iraq has a responsibility for their protection. And indeed the marshes offer a tremendous haven for them," said Mr Porter.

"Birds such as the African darter and the sacred ibis have been breeding [in the marshes] and that is the only site they are known to breed in the Middle East.

"We're a bit concerned about birds like the white-headed duck. We would have expected to see more in winter. But when you're counting birds, you just have to be there on the wrong day or on the wrong marsh and you have missed them."

Partial recovery for Iraq marshes
07 Dec 06 |  Science/Nature
Iraq marshes' recovery 'in doubt'
30 Aug 06 |  Science/Nature

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