In a historic first, Iraq announced the creation of its first national park, Mesopotamia Marshland National Park, in July 2013. The park designation process, which began in 2006, created the new protected area with the vision “Water, Reeds and People”, and three main objectives: restore, enhance and conserve the unique wildlife and natural beauty of the area, establish the long-term maintenance of its environmental features, including the conservation of cultural heritage and development of sustainable activities, and ensure the financial accountability of the area through ecotourism and additional means.
The Mesopotamia Marshland National Park is a unique wetlands complex rich in wildlife. Located in southern Iraq, North of the Euphrates River and West of the Tigris and Glory Channel, the Park is considered to provide an ecological bridge between the Africa region (termed the Arabic region of the African plate) and the Eurasian region, and is therefore important as a resting and feeding site for millions of migratory birds. This unique confluence of water and land and the sheer size of the wetlands explains the richness of birds and other wildlife, as well as the high ecological value of the Lower Mesopotamia wetlands, both at a regional and international level. Endemic birds include the Basra Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus griseldis) and Iraq Babbler (Turdoides altirostris), the Iraqi subspecies of the Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis iraquensis) and the African Darter (Anhinga rufa chantrei). Mammals found in the Park include Smooth-coated Otter (Lutra perspicillata maxwelli) and Bunn’s Short-Tailed Bandicoot Rat (Erythronesokia bunnii).The Park also includes the endemic fish, Bunnei (Barbus sharpeyi).
The marsh area around the National Park is also home to important tribes with rich cultures and traditions who still practice their customs today, and hand down their knowledge of use of traditional natural resources to new generations. This heritage is strongly supported by the new Park. However, due in part to draining of the marshes in the 1990’s, no villages are currently located in the Park. In addition, more than 60 archaeological sites have been documented throughout the area, but are still unexplored, adding to its historical importance and attraction for tourism.
Despite this richness and diversity, the new Park still faces a number of challenges, including uncontrolled hunting and fishing, the use of dangerous chemicals in the area, introduction of exotic species, uncontrolled reed harvesting, buffalo breeding and development of settlements and infrastructure, and damage and looting of archaeological sites. The Park’s management plan addresses these issues, and moving forward sets out five main objectives:
- to secure and maintain the habitat conditions necessary to protect significant species, groups of species, biotic communities or physical features of the environment where these require specific human manipulation for optimum management;
- to facilitate scientific research and environmental monitoring as primary activities associated with sustainable resource management;
- to develop limited areas for public education and appreciation of the characteristics of the habitats concerned and of the work of wildlife management;
- to eliminate and thereafter prevent exploitation or occupation inimical to the purposes of designation; and
- to deliver such benefits to people living within the designated area as are consistent with the other objectives of management.
As preparations for the IUCN World Parks Congress 2014 develop, the new National Park stands out as a shining example of the Congress theme: Parks, People, Planet – Inspiring Solutions. A beautiful tapestry of water, reeds and wildlife, the Park represents a true coming together to restore and conserve an area of outstanding natural and cultural significance. Partners in the Park’s founding include the Iraq Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works and Ministry of Water Resources, as well as Nature Iraq through the New Eden Project for Integrated Water Resources sponsored by the Italian Ministry of Environment Land and Sea, and the local communities surrounding the Park. After the draining of the marshes in the 1990’s, water, vegetation and wildlife are steadily starting to return. As it continues to address local and regional conservation and development challenges, Mesopotamia Marshland National Park not only represents history as Iraq’s first national protected area, but also serves as an inspiring solution for people and nature in an area once decimated by conflict and destructive policies.