Fourteen soldiers, some carrying assault rifles and others clad in bulletproof vests, accompany three men -- one carrying a professional camera and wearing a smile -- into the deserts of western Iraq.
Omar Fadhel and his colleagues are not out to find Al-Qaeda safe havens in this highly dangerous part of the country. Instead, their mission is to find the nesting grounds of the sociable lapwing, a rare bird that has been spotted here.
Still, Fadhel needs the protection. And even when joined by a representative of the Environment Ministry, he is challenged to rationalize his goals to those that can keep him safe.
"How can you go to the command center of the Iraqi police asking them to provide you with men -- and these men will face the chance of fighting with Al-Qaeda just looking for a bird or doing environmental work?" Fadhel asks. "This is a very, very unsuitable mission or task to make them understand what you are doing."
Fadhel is one of a handful of scientists working with Nature Iraq, one of the only environmental NGOs in the country and the only one doing regular field work. He is also among the rare conservationists at work around the globe who pursue their research in live conflict zones. Their goal is to safeguard threatened natural resources and wildlife -- and in the process, to remind the public that areas beset by conflict are not defined by them.Preserving Mesopotamia
Founded in 2003, after the start of the war, Nature Iraq's first project was in the Mesopotamian marshlands in the south, an ecosystem that almost vanished after years of draining under Saddam Hussein.
The marshlands of southern Iraq in 2005 (photo: M. Salim/Nature Iraq)
The founder of the group, Azzam Alwash, grew up in the region as the son of an irrigation engineer. Educated in the United States, he returned to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein and began his organization's work.
Though often interrupted by military activity and militant attacks, Nature Iraq instituted a marshland biodiversity program to map the area, assess its health, and work to restore it. Today, about half of the marshlands -- which many believe are the fabled Garden of Eden described in the Bible -- have been returned to their former glory. Working with the Italian government under the New Eden project, Nature Iraq is now helping to create a development plan for the country's first national park, to include the Mesopotamian marshes.
But the organization has also spearheaded projects in Kurdistan to the north, as well as in the more dangerous central and western regions of the country. After decades of destruction and neglect, compounded by the recent violence, there is no shortage of work -- from cataloguing species to working with the government to develop conservation plans and educating people about the importance of preserving nature.
"Nature Iraq needs to refresh and rehabilitate the Iraqi environment and teach the people how to deal with wildlife instead of dealing with guns and weapons," Fadhel says. Changing Perceptions
The Iraqi scientist says the group is also attempting to change the perception of Iraqis. "The Iraqi person is very keen and very understanding of the wildlife surrounding him -- and he is not just like a savage or like an ignorant person who deals with just the war and clashes and combat," he adds.
Nature Iraq boasts an English-language version of its website and links to a YouTube video titled "Who are the Iraqis?" In an apparent reference to the Mesopotamians, the first answer the video gives is, "They invented irrigated farming."
Fadhel himself, however, must deal with an increased threat of violence when he ventures into the western desert to search for his elusive birds.
"Every single time we go to certain places, like the Al-Tharthar area -- the western desert, the area between Al-Tharthar and Ramadi and Tikrit -- they used to call it the 'Triangle of Death,'" Fadhel says. "Even when we have security patrols and security forces, we feel uncomfortable because these are places where Al-Qaeda is active. You can smell the death and smell the sadness everywhere when you pass through these places."
The risk is worth it, he says. Even as foreign funding -- including from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), its Canadian equivalent, CIDA, and the Italian Environment Ministry -- keeps Nature Iraq afloat, no international conservation NGOs are working in the country. Representatives for Conservation International and the World Wildlife Fund blame limited resources and other priorities for their absence.
Fadhel says if he doesn't do this work, it could be a long time before someone else picks up the cause. "I love my country and this is the way I want to help it," he says.Working In Afghanistan
Peter Zahler's country is the United States, but today, he devotes much of his time to supervising the work of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Afghanistan. The New York-based organization began long-term work in the country in 2006, and according to Zahler, it is the only international conservation NGO there.
WCS helped set up Band-e Amir, Afghanistan's first national park. (photo: WCS-Afghanistan)
The reason? "Perhaps we're the only ones crazy enough to work in a country like Afghanistan," he jokes.
More seriously, WCS's mandate calls for maintaining a long-term presence in the countries where it works, in order to focus on the lengthy process of building community capacity for effective resource management. That mandate encouraged the WCS to stay, even as fighting has spiked.
The second reason is Zahler himself. Working for 10 years across the border in the tribal regions of Pakistan, he was recruited in 2002 to take part in the United Nations Environment Program's postconflict assessment of Afghanistan.
When funding became available for further work, Zahler argued that his experience would give the organization a head start. WCS now maintains a permanent presence in the country, with projects under way in Bamiyan Province in central Afghanistan, Nuristan Province in the northeast, and in the mountainous Wakhan corridor, bordering Pakistan, Tajikistan, and China.Grassroots Security
He admits that some question the priorities behind WCS's work -- which include surveying Afghanistan's grasslands and battling the illegal fur trade -- when insurgents still need to be defeated and the country needs to be rebuilt.
But that's exactly why conservation work is so vital, he says. "Eighty percent of the people in Afghanistan depend directly upon natural resources for their survival, so that means that natural-resource management is the foundation for reconstruction in Afghanistan," Zahler says. "You can build all the roads and all the school houses and all the dams that you want, but if people can't feed themselves and their families, you're not going to have security and stability."
WCS field staff in Afghanistan located the breeding grounds of the large-billed reed warbler, formerly dubbed "the world's least-known bird," in 2009. (photo: WCS-Afghanistan)
While sustainable farming, cattle grazing, and timber cutting help preserve the livelihood of the majority of Afghans, setting up the accompanying mechanisms for management has a farther-reaching effect.
WCS helped nascent community development councils join forces to oversee the country's first national park, Band-e Amir, which the organization helped found last year. It also trained thousands of Afghans in conservation and ecotourism practices, promoted gender-balanced community initiatives, and helped link community development councils across the country to the central government in Kabul.
While Zahler says that "we're not peacemakers," he believes WCS does "improve [local] governance, we do link those communities with the national government -- again, over natural-resource management, but that's oftentimes the first step to increasing that relationship that sometimes just doesn't exist. It's not our goal to do this -- our goal is to save wildlife in wild places -- but it's an interesting side effect of the work that we do."
That work comes with obvious risks. Zahler says security precautions are more extensive in Afghanistan than anywhere the organization works. While Bamiyan and the Wakhan are relatively peaceful areas, work in Nuristan, one of the country's last areas of extensive conifer forests along the Pakistani border, has been "dicier."
There are no U.S. citizens -- only trained Nuristani locals -- at work there. With a lot of planning and a little bit of luck, Zahler says, their staff has not been caught in any of the fighting.
They will continue to take those risks. Having already helped establish Afghanistan's first endangered species list, discovering scores of new plants and animals in the country, and conducting environmental surveys for the first time in three decades, there is much success to build upon.
Zahler says he still occasionally gets "funny looks" when people hear the kind of risks the WCS takes. But rarely, he adds, from Afghans. When it comes to the need for natural resource management, he says, most Afghans "really get it."