Baghdad’s trade in wildlife anything but tame

2010-05-27 12:06

A dozen fluffy white kittens with piercing blue eyes frolic in a

wire cage, perched perilously atop a pen containing two African lion cubs.

Neighbourhood schoolchildren stop to feed sunflower seeds to a chained monkey,

while three red foxes cower in their curbside enclosure from the street

noise.

Iraqis can get just about whatever animals they want, whether as

pets, novelties or status symbols or for a private zoo – and as violence

subsides many are stocking up at Baghdad’s several pet markets.

The lack of government regulation means animals like lions and

crocodiles are going home with people not equipped to take care of them.

“There is no wildlife legislation here in Iraq, and that is what

encourages these kinds of dealers to export and import wild species,” said Omar

Fadil, of the conservation organisation Nature Iraq.

“Do people have the ability to raise a lion in their home, or a

vulture or a pelican?” he asked.

“There is a big gap in understanding wildlife

in Iraq. They take it as a cub but after it becomes big and starts to attack

people I don’t know where the animal goes, and the concern is that they’re

killing them.”

Crowds flock to the exotic animal market in northwestern Baghdad,

which doubles as a zoo for neighbourhood families.

There is no fee to go in and look at the scores of animals –

pelicans, peacocks, wolves, cats, monkeys, a porcupine, an owl, bear cubs and a

dizzying array of dogs. And for the right price, you can take any one of them

home. For about $8 (about R62) you can have a duckling or a bunny; for $6?000

one of the lion cubs.

Another major open-air pet market about 5km away used to be

targeted regularly by insurgents. But crowds there have now grown from about

4?000 to double that every Friday when the market is held, Fadil said.

Rich sheiks (a religious official) who used to spend their time

hankered down in their heavily fortified compounds now buy exotic pets to

entertain themselves. More private zoos are sprouting up as well.

Many animals are likely being illegally imported into Iraq with

forged papers or bribes to border officials, Fadil said.

Ziad Ameer Salman, an Environment Ministry official, said: “The

government acknowledges the problem, but an immediate solution is

unlikely.”

Current laws governing wildlife date back to the 1970s or earlier,

and under the regime of Saddam Hussein many dealers were given permits to sell

wild animals, which are still valid.

The Agriculture Ministry this year proposed a new conservation law,

but it has taken a backseat to March’s inconclusive elections, the transfer of

security from the American to Iraqi forces, and scores of other issues, Salman

said.

“We need a strong legislation and a strong law. But we need time

because the members of parliament are changing, the government of Iraq is

changing.”

These are common problems in any unstable country devastated by war

where law enforcement authorities have a difficult enough time trying to protect

people, let alone animals, said Leigh Henry, senior policy officer on species

conservation for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

She cited examples in Afghanistan, where the WWF discovered snow

leopard pelts were being exported, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where

troops were illegally killing hippos to eat and to sell their teeth as

ivory.

“Wildlife is often seen as a status symbol, and where wealth and

opportunity exist, people will collect – whether it be reptiles, big cats, great

apes, or rare orchids,” Henry said.

At the pet market, store owner Sabah al-Azawi said he gets his

animals from all around the country, though primarily from northern Iraq.

 Some

are brought in from outside – the lion cubs came in from Turkey for example –

but al-Azawi said he doesn’t ask questions about their provenance. “This is not

my business.”

Though the cages at his store are cramped, they are all shaded and

regularly cleaned, the animals are given a plentiful supply of water, and none

of them appeared to be endangered species.

He said a vet regularly checks the

animals, and when he sells an exotic pet to someone he gives detailed

instructions on how to care for it.

Scores of neighbourhood children and others come by daily to

gawk.

“We come here every day when we have some extra time.

My family got

our dog here,” said 13-year-old Mohammad Marwan, who stopped by for a visit

recently on his way to school.

Al-Azawi said that for him, running the shop is not about getting

rich.

“This is my hobby, just to be among these animals I am happy,”

al-Azawi said after climbing into the lions’ cage to feed them ground beef out

of his hands.

Still, he said everything is for sale, including two 1.5-meter-long

Nile crocodiles he keeps at home.

“I got them for myself, but anyone who comes

through I say ‘I have a crocodile in my house’, and I’ll sell it to him if the

deal is good.”



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