Hana Raza has never seen a Persian leopard. But thanks to her, we know the big cats still roam the Zagros Mountains of Kurdistan. After four decades of war in Iraq, the species was thought to have followed the Asiatic lion and cheetah into local extinction. But Raza says she never lost hope. “It’s a very adaptive creature,” she says. “And I just thought, it’s too strong. It can survive the wars.” With a freshly minted bachelor’s degree in biology, she joined local nonprofit Nature Iraq, expanded the organization’s focus to include mammals, wrote a grant proposal for camera traps, and set them out.
Four months later, in 2011—snap! A camera on Jazhna Mountain in the Qara Dagh district captured an image of a powerful male leopard, its rear haunch in the foreground, passing through. Raza’s colleague Korsh Ararat, a passionate birder, was in the U.K. working on his master’s degree in environmental assessment and management when Raza told him they’d gotten the photo. “I couldn’t wait to get back here,” he says.
Four years and two more pictures later, while setting another camera trap in the Darbandikhan area near the border with Iran, Ararat came upon a leopard in the flesh, just 10 meters away. “I was shouting very silently, saying, ‘Oh! This is a leopard! This is a leopard!’ It was one of the most exciting moments in my whole career. I mean… I love birds, but it was not like that. This bird had very big paws and very nice eyes.” He gives a heartfelt sigh.
That Raza, the manager of a project intended to protect the Persian leopard (Panthera pardus saxicolor) has not yet seen one herself is unsurprising. The animal’s elusive nature is a big part of what has helped it to hold on here. But that hold is tenuous. The world’s nine subspecies of leopard, of which the Persian is the largest, were once found throughout Africa and Asia; today they are all at risk. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the Persian leopard as endangered, estimating that fewer than 1,290 adults remain. Throughout its range, the Persian leopard’s primary threat is people, who degrade the cats’ habitat, deplete water resources, and kill them with guns, cars, and poison. The fact that most of that range—here in Iraq’s Kurdish mountains; along Iran’s northern border with Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia; in Afghanistan’s mountains; and in the Caucus Mountains of southwestern Russia and Georgia—is prone to human volatility means that it can be difficult to direct attention, government policy, and funds toward conservation.
Today the two Kurdish conservationists are on a mission to save the leopard, which they see as an ambassador. Since that first camera trap image, they’ve been laying the groundwork for conservation: first documenting the predator’s habitat, then writing proposals and advocating for the designation and management of reserves. Protecting the leopard’s habitat, they argue, will help safeguard other threatened species as well, such as the spur-thighed tortoise, Azerbaijan mountain newt, Kurdistan mountain newt, and spotted belly salamander.
An Iraq with mountains, leopards, and newts defies the vision many Westerners hold of the country: dun-colored desert, oil wells flaring gas into the sky, trappings of war. Those are here, but the country is much more than that. The deltas of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers form some of the largest wetlands in the Middle East, the fabled cradle of civilization. And as elevation rises to the north, the land undulates through grass- and shrub-covered foothills, giving way to forest-steppe and the temperate broadleaf and mixed forests of Iraqi Kurdistan, topped by 10,000-foot peaks. This range of ecoregions makes Iraq surprisingly biodiverse, boasting some 400 species of birds, 500 plants, 90 mammals, 98 reptiles, 10 amphibians, and 100 freshwater and marine fish.
“In many ways, the Persian leopard could be considered the Kurds’ spirit animal: persecuted, squeezed from all sides, survivors finding refuge in the mountains.”
In the Zagros Mountains, the Persian leopard shares its habitat with Kurds, stateless people living where Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria meet. In Iraq, Kurdish freedom fighters, the Peshmerga, won semi-autonomy in 1992, earning a measure of freedom and prosperity. But peace has not persisted here. When the Islamic State seized nearly one-third of Iraq in 2014, Kurds were drawn back into fighting. Later, a Kurdish independence referendum in September 2017 was viewed as a threat in Baghdad, prompting the Iraqi government to send soldiers to retake oil-rich Kirkuk, close Kurdish airports to the world, and withhold some of Kurdistan’s governing budget. In many ways, the Persian leopard could be considered the Kurds’ spirit animal: persecuted, squeezed from all sides, survivors finding refuge in the mountains.
Raza and Ararat’s conservation work is revolutionary in a place where environmental concerns have long taken a backseat to human conflict. But it’s actually an outgrowth of their distinct experiences growing up in a war zone. And now, if they can overcome immense challenges—landmines, episodic violence, government disorganization, corruption, patriarchal attitudes, minimal funding, a public largely unaware of environmental issues—Raza hopes that the leopard’s salvation could catalyze the entire country to shift direction, warming Iraqi hearts to nature and conservation, changing priorities. Ultimately, she envisions a “peace park” in the Kurdish region that straddles Iraq and Iran. And although that dream has been tempered by events this year in Iran that left one of their Persian collaborators dead and many of the rest imprisoned, Raza and Ararat aren’t quitters.
Sanctuary in the Mountains
Although periodic conflict continues in some parts of Iraq, the Kurdish city of Slemani (or Sulaymaniyah, as Arab Iraqis call it), where Raza and Ararat live and work, is generally peaceful. Ararat started as a bird expert at Nature Iraq in 2007 and recruited Raza from Sulaymaniyah University in 2009. Soon after, she began the group’s mammal conservation efforts and now leads the leopard project. When he returned from the U.K., Ararat began teaching animal anatomy at Sulaymaniyah University, and in 2016, Raza invited him back to Nature Iraq to work part-time on the leopard project.
Despite the countless challenges of this type of work, Raza, pragmatic and a little bit fierce, remains undeterred. “In anything that I do, I just decide to do it before I think about the negative things,” she says. “Because along the way you meet a lot of people who just shock you for being so cooperative and helpful…. And whenever I find that link, I just focus on it and I won’t let it go.” Her tremendous forward drive seems to pull others along in her wake.
Kurdistan is comparatively progressive in this region. Many women here hold jobs outside the home and wear secular clothing, rather than the hijabs and niqabs of southern Iraq. A mural along one of Slemani’s boulevards reads: “We are more powerful when we are equal.” Nevertheless, Raza’s work—which requires spending months in the field with men, going to remote villages and talking to strangers, “campaigning in areas that are not safe for anybody, let alone for a woman”—is on the cutting edge here.
“I could have never done it without my parents’ support,” she says. They were Peshmerga freedom fighters, “educated on Marx and Lenin, so their mindset was very different than their typical society.” Her mother, a strong woman, is an inspiration, she says.
As a woman here, to prove you can do the job, “You have to work harder,” she says. Initially villagers would respond to male colleagues when she asked questions. And even eight years on, some family members and friends still ask her when she will quit working and get married. She responds, “‘I can’t do that. Because I’m attached to it.’” And she bristles at the presumption that women must marry and have children. “I tell them, ‘Stop worrying about me! I’m doing something that I love. I’m much more happy than all of you married people, so give me a break.’”
Raza owes her early introduction to nature to the Iraq-Iran War, waged primarily in Kurdistan and followed by Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaign against the Kurds. When she was born, her parents were living in one of the main Peshmerga camps on Permagroon Mountain northwest of Slemani. In 1987, when she was just 4 months old, the camp was bombarded by chemical weapons. Raza, her year-old sister, and her parents were all hit.
“My mom was temporarily blinded for a few days,” she says. “My skin was, all of it, just blistering.” Over the following months, the family recovered. And what has lasted for Raza, despite that early assault, is a feeling that the mountains are sanctuary. Because the Kurds’ land is rich and strategically important, they’ve long had to fight off various regimes. “None of them came here to be our friends,” she says. The mountains provided refuge from which to fight, invoking a Kurdish saying: “We have no friends but the mountains.” From this sensibility arose her passion to protect the leopard, says Raza. “It’s a mountain animal. And the mountains are… nothing without their animals.”
Ararat also finds the seeds of his conservation work in wartime experiences. A soft-spoken man with a philosopher’s bent, Ararat has a birder’s quick draw with the binoculars and a propensity for funny, biology-themed t-shirts. Many Kurds in Iraq—including Raza’s and Ararat’s families—fled to Iran when Saddam Hussein focused his military might on the Kurds. Ararat walked to Iran with his family when he was just 8 years old. “We saw people who were killed by landmines,” he says. The experience was formative. “I was exposed to real life,” he says, and came to understand its deeper meaning. “Life is not about just me, what I feel. It’s everything, from one electron to the whole universe.”
We Belong to This Nature
On a warm, bright spring day, Raza, Ararat, and a couple of others from Nature Iraq take me into a rural region southwest of Slemani known as Qara Dagh, where the first leopard was photographed. Leaving the city, we head for the mountains, up, up, up, ears popping, sightlines expanding, on a switchback road cut through angled limestone. It’s early April, and the rolling foothills are flushed green with young grasses and dotted with boulders and Persian oaks. Lurking above us are barren mountain peaks with ridges that look sharp enough to cut. European bee-eaters trill, an Egyptian vulture soars overhead, and wildflowers pop color onto the landscape. The region’s proximity to the birth of farming means that some of its native flora and fauna are oddly familiar: wild sheep and wild goats, the ancestors of today’s domesticated breeds, as well as wild pistachio trees, wheat, barley, rhubarb.
As part of their work to map where the leopards live, Raza, Ararat, and their colleagues conduct interviews with villagers. One of those is Atta Kamil, a farmer who lives in a village in the Qara Dagh district. He grows crops and raises cattle, sheep, and goats. We meet him out by one of his fields, bordered by trees. He wears a thick mustache and the traditional capacious Kurdish trousers, and we step under an oak tree to escape the sun and talk.
“We haven’t seen any leopards here since the ’70s,” he says. But he does see a lot of wild animals: wild goats, wild boar, porcupines, badgers, chukars, partridges. Hunting is largely banned across Iraq, and Kamil says that he supports this policy, as do most of the people he knows. “We belong to this area; we belong to this nature,” he says. “We would like to keep it safe from any damage.”
Yet despite the hunting ban and Kamil’s support of it, in the previous three months, forest police in Qara Dagh caught about 60 poachers. The illegal hunters bring down mostly francolin, chukar (wild birds), wild goat, and wild boar. If caught, they are usually fined and given a short jail term, but for some, the penalties are too light to deter repeat offenses.
People hunt for food, profit, and fun, and also to protect their livelihoods. Two wild animals give farmers trouble, Kamil says: wild boar, which destroy crops, and wolves, which prey on cattle and sheep. The farmers can apply to the government for compensation or permission to hunt problem animals, but budget woes have stalled these programs, leaving them to take matters into their own hands. Sometimes people blame leopards for livestock predation, says Raza, but usually wolves are responsible. It’s easy to tell the difference: Wolves tear the animal apart on site. Leopards carry it off to a tree to eat over several days.
And according to Arash Ghoddousi, a leopard researcher who has studied various aspects of Persian leopard-livestock interactions in his native Iran, leopards strongly prefer natural prey over domesticated animals.
Policing the Mountains
Farther down the road, under another oak, we meet up with Araz Ata Mohammed Salih. A forest policeman who was born in a nearby village and knows the land intimately, Salih has helped Raza’s crew identify leopard habitat and set successful camera traps. Because of budget shortfalls due to falling oil prices, conflict between the Kurdish and Iraqi governments, and resources being channeled toward fighting the Islamic State, government employees here had gone unpaid for five months as of April. Salih had been living off of savings and was looking for work in the private sector.
But he loves his job and doesn’t want to leave it. Four years ago, while on duty one evening, he saw a leopard. “I was very excited when I saw it,” he says. “I heard some people saying it eats humans, but I wasn’t afraid of it.” That’s a rational response, says Raza. Leopards rarely attack people. In all of her interviews over the past nine years, she’s only heard of two attacks, neither deadly.
Yet people kill Persian leopards throughout their range. A 2016 paper coauthored by Raza tallied proof of leopards in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey. Unfortunately, the majority of that proof is in the form of dead leopards. Between 2001 and 2014, six were shot by hunters or shepherds, one was poisoned by a shepherd, two were found dead (likely poisoned by humans or killed by snake bite), one was killed by a landmine, and just one was seen alive on video. Although these instances are so few as to seem anecdotal, so are the Persian leopard’s overall numbers. “We are talking about a very low-density species,” says Ghoddousi. “Male leopards have an average home range size of 100 square kilometers.” Females use less area but still may roam over tens of kilometers. “Losing one breeding female or male has a big impact.”
And in Iran, home to about 65 percent of the remaining Persian leopards, other researchers documented 147 leopards killed between 2000 and 2015. More than 60 percent were shot or poisoned, and 26 percent were hit by vehicles. Although Iran created many protected areas between the 1950s and ’70s, says Ghoddousi, enforcing those protections hasn’t been a priority. Today, Iranian reserves are often understaffed, and poaching is common.
In addition to killing the leopards themselves, poaching the cats’ prey, especially their preferred wild goats, is also a major threat, says Ghoddousi, because one of the most important factors in leopard survival is an adequate prey base. Unfortunately, many leopard habitats are now heavily poached by local people. “In Golestan National Park [in northeastern Iran], we realized three out of four prey species declined by 60 to 90 percent in the last 40 years.”
A Peace Park in a War-Torn Land
Since that first photo in 2011, Raza and her team have set out dozens of camera traps and caught multiple sightings of three male leopards in Qara Dagh. Individuals are easily identified by their unique coat patterns, which Raza likens to human fingerprints. Limited funding and staff have precluded a systematic study, but Raza estimates that 10 leopards may live in Qara Dagh, although they’ve seen no signs of a female.
In another place they hope to protect, the Hawraman region near the Iranian border, a local man filmed a grainy video of a mother and a cub. Still, the scattered nature of remnant leopard populations is a problem, Raza says, making it difficult for leopards to find each other and mate. If they succeed, a female usually has two cubs, only one of which generally makes it to adulthood. They can breed when they’re about a year and a half old but have perhaps a decade or less of fertility—if they survive that long.
To improve conditions for leopards and their prey in Qara Dagh, at the suggestion of forest policeman Salih, Raza’s team built a small earthen dam last year, creating a geologic basin to hold rainwater. Because there are no springs here and climate change is making the region drier, “the animals would have to walk long distances in order to get water,” says Raza. “And along the way they’d face a lot of threats.” Many animals have already begun using the new resource. As we walk along the pond’s periphery, we find tracks of grey wolf, wild boar, and golden jackals.
Accompanying us this day is Deliva Abdulla Ali, the mayor of Qara Dagh district. A smiley man with kind eyes, Abdulla Ali has pledged to help Nature Iraq establish protected status for part of his district. He says he hopes that conserving animals will ultimately support ecotourism here, and he and Raza’s team are discussing the possibility of building a lodge close to the pond. It would be powered by solar, and rangers would accompany visitors to ensure responsible behavior. But government money for such a project is unlikely in the foreseeable future, and lack of cooperation among relevant departments of the Kurdish Regional Government make it difficult to get the private sector to invest, says Abdulla Ali.
Ecotourism does have regional precedent, though. Iran has several ecotourism-focused lodges, including one recently built in the leopard’s territory near Golestan National Park, says Ghoddousi. “The effects of this lodge on the local community in terms of providing alternative livelihood to the people and educating them about nature has been incredible,” he says. But the region’s political instability makes sustainable international tourism challenging, he acknowledges.
It’s also a problem for conservation. Raza’s ultimate goal of creating a peace park in the mountains straddling Iraq and Iran would require working with leopard researchers at the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF) based in Tehran. But earlier this year, the Iranian government imprisoned 13 people affiliated with that organization, accusing them of spying with their wildlife camera traps. One of the founders, Kavous Seyed Emami, an Iranian-Canadian, died or was killed in prison in February.
Just this past December, another person who worked with PWHF had visited Slemani, says Raza. They had documented leopards on corresponding sides of the border and were excited to propose those areas for protection. They made plans for Raza to visit conservation projects in Golestan National Park. Then “I didn’t hear from him for weeks,” she says. “I texted him and got no response.” Later she discovered through an Instagram post that he, too, had been imprisoned. Although some PWHF researchers have been released, others remain in prison.
Friends and colleagues have advised Raza and others at Nature Iraq to avoid the border areas. With the Iranian partnership on hold indefinitely, she and Ararat are switching gears. They wrote a proposal for a grant from the IUCN to create a 2,282-hectare protected area for leopards in Qara Dagh. Eight government entities in Kurdistan support the proposal and have given formal approval to Nature Iraq to manage the area for the Persian leopard.
Raza and Ararat are also moving forward with studies to justify protection for the Hawraman and Darbhandikan areas. Both districts abut Iran southwest of Slemani and could be merged with any future protected areas established across the border to create a peace park. Ultimately, they hope to see habitat corridors that connect Qara Dagh with the other areas so leopards can disperse to mate and establish new territories.
Some might question prioritizing conservation and ecology in an area so beset by human drama. But as international agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) attest, we are in the midst of Earth’s sixth mass extinction, caused by soaring human population, quadrupling over the last century and projected to surpass 10 billion by 2060. The dramatic increase also drives human conflict, along with climate stressors such as declining water availability, which has people and other animals on the move.
Iraq is a signatory to the CBD, and in its National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, it committed to creating 10 new protected areas by 2020—although an official has told Raza that three is more likely. Nevertheless, Raza and Ararat are hoping that Qara Dagh will be one of them. Supporting them in that effort is Samad Mohammad, head of the Kurdistan Environmental Protection and Improvement Commission, who also sits on the Iraqi national committee for protected areas.
Because conservation is relatively new here, when Raza and her team meet with government officials, they are starting from square one, defining what management means and trying to determine which agencies would be responsible for which tasks. Working in Kurdistan adds complexity because it’s both independent and not. Overlapping Kurdish and Iraqi laws governing hunting and protected areas create confusion. “We’re sandwiched in between these two governments who are not completely willing to work together,” she says. However, it’s critical for a protected area to be recognized by Iraq so that it will meet international standards, such as those set out by the IUCN. They will submit the Qara Dagh protected area proposal to the Ministry of Health and Environment of Iraq, says Raza. If the IUCN approves the grant, they will start in January to form the Protected Area Management Board and write the management plan.
While Nature Iraq enjoyed solid funding for a time after it was founded in 2004, the money has since dried up, says Raza. Now to fund leopard research and conservation projects, she relies entirely on international grants, such as the one from the IUCN she hopes to get to lease the conservation area in Qara Dagh. The Iraqi Deputy Minister of Environment agreed to support that effort, she says. “So I’m hoping that we can build the relationship from there.”
Public education is another key part of this work. With various local government officials, Raza and her team talk about the need to teach environmental education starting in kindergarten. But it’s a slow process that can only be implemented district by district. They are also recruiting interns from three universities in Slemani, taking them out into the field for hands-on experience with the Persian leopard project. It’s having a positive impact, says Raza. On World Wildlife Day last year, several of those students “volunteered to lead the event, talk to people, hand out fliers, collect signatures. So they were really, really interested.”
Ararat says he used to want an independent Kurdistan, but no longer. Conservation work has taught him that borders are illusions. Think about birds, he says. “They go everywhere, and they can travel continents, and they don’t care about borders.” Yet humans, who think they are superior to other animals, are fighting each other over these illusions, he says.
Raza, also weary of conflict, hopes their struggle to carve out space for other species’ survival can sow the seeds of regeneration in Iraq. “We have fought for many years for no reason, basically,” she says. “It’s very important to me to plant the idea in our society that it’s culturally wise to have protected areas,” says Raza. “Countries should be recognized for… the way they treat their animals and natural resources.”
To realize that vision, she continues to push forward. “I believe in patience,” she says. “I’ve been patient enough to accomplish a lot of things that I have wanted in my life. Everything comes at the right time.”
Patience, not to mention persistence, will be necessary for everyone involved: for her Iranian colleagues to be freed and continue their work, for Kurdish forest police to receive their salaries, for Iraqi and Kurdish governments to work together on protected areas, for the Iraqi people to value and safeguard their natural heritage—and for Raza to finally see her first leopard.
[This story originally appeared on bioGraphic]