We’ve had a lot of rocket and mortar attacks in the last few days. One day we had eight or nine hit inside the wire. As a result we need to go everywhere in body armor and helmet. So Saturday was a day for birding in full battle rattle—weapon included, of course.
That’s U.S. National Guardsman and bird-lover Jonathan Trouern-Trend, who, after arriving in Iraq for military duty in early 2004, began to post his birdwatching observations to a blog. In 2005, a selection from his entries was published in Orion as “Birding Babylon,” which appeared in that year’s March/April issue.
Jonathan describes in his entries an incredible array of birds, many of which had returned only recently to the marshlands of central and southern Iraq. A decade before, in the 1990s, in an effort to make life hard for Iraq’s Ma’dan Marsh Arabs, Saddam Hussein’s regime drained and burned much of those marshlands, reducing them to 7 percent of their original size—an act the United Nations Environmental Programme called “the worst environmental disaster of the last century.”
But in addition to the comeback of marsh birds, there’s good news to report. Last month, the Iraqi Council of Ministers designated the Central Marshes as the country’s first national park—a haven for all those grebes, egrets, shrikes, and kingfishers spotted by Jonathan in 2004, as well as a tribute to the ancient and ongoing human presence in the area.
The success rests on the work of many people, but it especially rests on the work of Azzam Alwash, whose organization, Nature Iraq, has been pushing for the new designation for years. In addition to advocacy, Azzam and Nature Iraq are training Iraqis to run biological surveys and engaging tribal leaders in community conservation projects. (They’ve even published Iraq’s first bird guide.) All of which is the foundation for a culture of natural history and preservation in a country that’s not had one for a long time.
With this action, Iraq has acted to preserve the cradle of civilization,” Azzam says. “Preservation of this park means preservation of our link to our forefathers. Everyone in the world, in the West and the Middle East, are descended from this land. It is now the duty of the world to help Iraq maintain these wetlands for the future generations by helping Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran to reach an equitable agreement on the sharing of the waters in the basin of the Tigris and Euphrates.
Back in 2004, with his time in Iraq nearing an end, Jonathan Trouern-Trend admitted to some nostalgic feeling for the marshlands: “I have been blessed with the opportunity to be here. One day I hope to return, with binoculars but without a weapon.”
Reading accounts of the area by both Jonathan and Azzam, I can’t help but wonder whether they’ve spotted some of the same birds. It’s certainly possible. After all, both men have spent a lot of time crunching through phragmite stems near the Central Marsh—and both seem energized by the same thing: a love for birds and a place that can retain some of its beauty amid so much ugliness.
Read an excerpt from “Birding Babylon,” published in the March/April 2005 issue of Orion, and watch Azzam Alwash (who recently received a Goldman Environmental Prize) describe the history and future of Iraq’s marshlands: