In the spring, Pirmagrun Mountain, one of the world's last refuges for the endangered Persian leopard, towers over the surrounding countryside in Iraqi Kurdistan, with its rocky snow-capped peaks fading into an ancient oak forest that starts sparsely before running narrow, thickly wooded valleys.
As recently as the 1980s, the forest covered the slopes of the mountain, also known as Birah Magrun, as well as the surrounding area, and the leopard was commonly seen by hunters. But intensive illegal logging means that the forest now ends abruptly in the middle of the mountainside, where it meets barren land dotted with tree stumps and grazed by herds of goats.
According to Hana Raza, a biologist with the conservation organization Nature Iraq, which has been monitoring the predator population for more than a decade, accelerating habitat loss is rapidly accelerating the extinction of the Persian leopard in Iraq.
Between 1999 and 2018, nearly half of Iraqi Kurdistan's forests, more than 890,000 hectares (2.2m acres), were destroyed, mainly by logging and forest fires, according to surveys conducted by the United Nations and the Kurdistan regional government (KRG).
At the same time, the global adult population of the once common Persian leopard is estimated to have dropped to between 800 and 1,200.
"Oak is a keystone species in Iraqi Kurdistan," Raza says. "If its oak forests continue to decline, then the continued existence of the Persian leopard will become unsustainable."
In addition to the Persian leopard, the region's apex predator, at least 17 species of birds are in danger of extinction in Iraqi Kurdistan, according to Nature Iraq, other animals, such as the Persian fallow deer and the Asiatic lion, are already extinct in the region.
In addition to this, the Caucasian oak, one of the four types of oak found in the mountains of Kurdistan, is critically endangered regionally and in danger of disappearing entirely from the forests of Iraq.
“Every year when I return, there are fewer trees, and it is not just a mountain, the destruction of native oak forests is accelerating across Iraqi Kurdistan,” says Raza.
The main driver of the current logging wave in the region is a worsening economic crisis. Iraqi Kurdistan, which relies on the oil and gas sector for roughly 80% of government revenue, was struggling to cope with mounting debt in late 2019. Financial problems have been compounded by the Covid- pandemic. 19 and the fall in world oil prices.
Dliva Abdulla is the Mayor of Qara Dagh Municipality and lives in a town next to the mountain range. The series of nine mountain peaks, known as Qopa Qara Dagh, is sandwiched by eight valleys and is one of the few places where the Persian leopard has been photographed in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The range is located in a region where the ecosystems of the Zagros mountain and the Mediterranean steppe overlap, making it highly biodiverse and home to over 900 different plant species. But it has also seen an increase in illegal logging as villagers scramble to earn money.
Abdulla says that many of those who live in his municipality cut down trees to provide fuel for cooking and heating. Neither Abdulla nor the forest police, charged with preventing illegal deforestation, had received their salaries from the KRG at the end of April. “The forest police have so few resources that they cannot afford gasoline for their vehicles and they have had to reduce the number of patrols,” says Abdulla. The economic crisis and the reduced police presence, in turn, have led to an increase in hunting.
"They are still trying to strictly enforce anti-poaching laws, but with anti-logging laws they have to be more lenient for the sake of people's families," he adds.
This increase in hunting is damaging the population of wild goats and wild boars, on which leopards depend for food. In April, the carcass of a three-year-old leopard was found in Birah Magrun, Nature Iraq reported.
"Hunters just walk up the mountain and kill what they see," Raza says. “The forest police cannot control it. In this case, the hunter shot the leopard, but did not kill it instantly, and was unable to track it down afterwards, leaving the corpse to be found by someone else later. "
Amid the regional government's dwindling ability to enforce laws that protect the region's wildlife, the vast minefields of Iraqi Kurdistan have become one of the last strongholds against illegal logging and poaching in the region. .
Abandoned mines from previous decades make Iraqi Kurdistan one of the five most mined regions in the world. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the front lines moved back and forth through the mountains and it is estimated that more than 20 million landmines were planted.
More mines were added when Saddam Hussein's forces systematically destroyed villages during campaigns against the Kurds in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The Iraqi Kurdistan Mine Action Agency estimates that the mines cover almost 226 square kilometers within the region, with the majority concentrated along the country's mountainous border with Iran, where they continue to kill and maim people.
Saman Ahmad, president of the Kurdistan Botanical Foundation, an organization dedicated to recording and preserving the country's plant life, believes that amid the economic crisis and ongoing security concerns, minefields are the only thing he stands for from effectively the wild oak forests of Iraqi Kurdistan.
"Ultimately, these forests must be managed in a modern way, using scientific documentation, effective rangers, and tourism funds to protect the exceptional biodiversity of the region," he says. “But right now, with all the problems facing the region, this is simply not feasible.
"Right now, it's probably best if the mines stay in the ground to keep people out and prevent people from cutting down trees and disturbing the natural habitat."
Efforts to establish an international standard national park within the region have failed amid economic and political instability.
In 2014, Halgurd Sakran National Park was named the first national park in the region, but the project was derailed by the rise of Isis, who took control of Mosul, Iraq's second city, in June of the same year.
In 2018, plans for a protected transnational park, which would have included mountains in Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan, were suspended when nine scientists and conservation researchers from the Tehran-based Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation were charged with espionage.
Now, Nature Iraq is working to establish a smaller, formally recognized conservation park for Persian leopards that would contain the nine peaks of the Qopi Qara Dagh. The land purchase was approved by the Kurdistan regional government in January 2019 and the organization expects the Iraqi federal government to approve the national park status of the area in 2021.
"It's easy to feel like you're powerless to stop habitat destruction," Raza says. “But over the past century, the Kurdish people have sacrificed a lot to maintain control of these mountains. All these sacrifices will be meaningless if leopards and other native animals go extinct. "