Iraq's taste for flamingo is fuelling 'bird genocide'

Iraq's taste for flamingo is fuelling 'bird genocide'
The wetland birds take refuge in Iraq's southern marshland, but are hunted by an increasingly desperate population, as well as those who like to show off at dinner parties.
5 min read
19 January, 2017
The burgeoning market in flamingo meat has sparked limited protests [Nazli Tarzi]

"Flamingo birds have been migrating to Iraq for as long as I can remember," said Hassan Tawfiq.

"But never have they been feasted on like today." 

Over the past three months, the consumption of flamingo meat, as unusual as it is alarming, has generated much chatter on Arabic social media networks. In late December the first posts trickled through, prompting outrage, sadness and mockery.

In one video, posted on December 25, four men are seen poaching the rare bird in an amateur hunting operation using coarse trapping nets. Later videos have since shown the bird being sold by street vendors in Basra, Amarah and Najaf.

These birds are assumed to be migratory, but are in fact nomadic, explains zoologist Paul Rose from the University of Exeter.

"They move when they need to find new food resources or nesting areas," he told The New Arab. "They don't have fixed flight paths or flyways, but move along a string of wetland sites that they know they can use."

Iraq's everglades is one such site, known to others as the Mesopotamian marshes, across which flamingos find temporary residence during winter. The marshes, rumoured to have been where the Garden of Eden once lay, can be found at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

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The birds, and other rare wildlife, dwell predominantly in Shunafiyya, Chibaish and Hawizeh marshes - recently listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Much disagreement circulates on the question of why the popularity of flamingo flesh has soared in recent months. Widespread poverty, for some, is the cited cause, while others have admonished societal attitudes which, Tawfiq, an Iraqi academic from Baghdad, says, "have changed for the worse and not for the better".

"If we have failed to respect human life, what chance of survival do these birds have?

"Another misconception is that the poaching of flamingos is illegal, when in reality it isn't. According to the Iraqi Fishermen's Association, it is permissible to hunt these birds, but within reason."

The problem, however, is who decides on what is reasonable and what is not. "There is not a single organisation to regulate such hunting," the lecturer adds.

"Making matters worse is the elimination and merging of government ministries," he said.

In July 2016, parliament approved the environment ministry merging with the health ministry. "The conservation of heritage, ecology and wildlife has no room on either of their agendas."

The government has had little to say on the matter, having had bigger fish to fry in its war against the Islamic State group.

Flamingos for sale on a street in Basra [Nazli Tarzi]

Fowl play?

In December, Al Mohandis Mohsin Azziz, of the Dhi Qar governorate's directorate of the environment, denied cases of flamingo poaching, claiming "none have been reported" in the area under his jurisdiction.

Azziz maintained there would be "close monitoring and coordination with all relevant parties" to ensure no poaching.

He added that Deputy Health Minister Jassim al-Falahi had issued warnings forbidding locals from hunting migratory birds and wildlife in the southern wetlands.

A symposium held last month by the directorate of the province took the first step towards educating local communities about the consequences of poaching migratory birds and other aquatic life.

Other demonstrations have been organised this month, featuring leading figures including Iraqi environmentalist Jasim al-Asadi, managing director of the Chibaish office of Nature Iraq.

Sameera Abd Modi, director general of the Center for Restoration of Iraqi Marshlands at the Ministry of Water Resources, told Al-Monitor the poaching of the greater flamingo was "an embarrassment before the international community, as it shows Iraq is not committed to the UNESCO terms and pledges in regard to the marshes".

Tawfiq said the UNESCO declaration had not made a long-term impact on behaviours.

"Iraqis are always quick to celebrate the first moment, they then leave everything to fate," he said. "Ironic, isn't it? - That we can celebrate the revival and protection of Al Ahwar [marshes], while failing to protect the rare animals who seek sanctuary there… who can can tell these people what they are doing is illegal or immoral?"

The state of lawlessness, unchecked corruption, and violence has inspired despondency, apathy and ignorance among Iraqis.

"Preserving the ecology," says Tawfiq, "is the least of their concerns."

Hussein Baji Al Ghazi is head of Dhi Qar's union of journalists. The sale of these birds is "a crime that belittles all the scientific, cultural and intellectual advancements Iraq has ever accomplished," he wrote. He went on to describe one adolescent salesman he encountered, and how he "boasted of the way he skins the bird and strips them of their feathers using a long knife".

A news package published three years ago by Iraqi satellite station Al Hurra features local men in Najaf, many of whom speak of flamingo as a fine and affordable choice of meat, while others casually described how its served to woo dinner party guests.

One man recalled the various ways it can be eaten.

"Some serve it with rice, or alone, while others boil and grill it, each to their own. It's a matter of personal taste. Iraqis, as you know, are big eaters."

Another resident from Basra, Saif Ali, now living in London, described the taste of the crustacean-feasting bird as "a blend between chicken and fish, that leaves a lingering aftertaste, similar to eating duck".

Unfortunately, flamingo is not the only meat served in competition over status and prestige in Iraq.

Some believe that without such attitudes flamingo would not be part of the local diet. Tawfiq asks: "How can [flamingo symbolise prestige or wealth], if flamingo meat is cheaper than chicken at 10 000 Iraqi dinars per bird?"

Paul Rose stated that, other than Iraq, "there are [also] reports of some of the South American species being hunted" for food.

Tawfiq said the country's religious institutions must involve themselves and issue much-needed fatwas to deter people from hunting. Yet, according to Ali, the marshes continue to be regarded by many as an ecological storehouse ready for exploitation.

"This is the biggest hurdle we must first overcome," he said.

"I still remember my childhood in Najaf, the birds also visited in the 1970s and 1980s, but no one then hunted or ate them. We must ask therefore, what has changed?"

Nazli Tarzi is a freelance British-Iraqi journalist, specialising in Middle East politics, with a particular interest in Iraqi affairs.

Follow her on Twitter: @NazliTarzi