‘Looking for a flamingo?’: bird trafficking in Iraq – photo essay

When flamingos migrate to the southern Iraqi marshes in the winter months, the poachers are waiting – and so are the customers who want them to decorate their gardens

Photographs by Chloe Sharrock. Words by Quentin Müller and Sylvain Mercadier

“Is it flamingos you’re looking for? Come to my place after 1pm,” whispers Mustafa Ahmed Ali from inside his small shop, which is buzzing with bird sounds of all kinds. He has been selling birds – wild and bred – at the bird market in Amara, in Iraq’s Maysan province, for more than 30 years.

Bird poaching can be a lucrative business in Maysan, which is located between the Ahwar marshes – a Unesco world heritage site – and the border with Iran, putting it at the forefront of bird trafficking. The region is a poor one and the illegal trafficking of birds is a lifeline for many families.

In his small bricked house in Amara’s suburbs, Ali admits selling various species of birds, mostly to rich Iraqis or foreigners from the Gulf states. “They travel all the way here from countries such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia or even Qatar,” he says.

On his rooftop, he opens the gate of a large cage full of chattering flamingos. “People want them to decorate their gardens, or to put them in their private zoos. I’m the one supplying many Iraqi buyers.

“Many flamingos die in my cage, especially during warm summer days,” he admits, adding: “I sell between one and 10 of those birds every month during winter, the peak season. They buy them dead or alive, because people also eat them.”

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