'Iraq's Steve Irwin' fights extinction, climate change and poaching

From trawling animal markets to appearing on TV with a python around his neck, Mahdi Laith is educating children about the importance of nature in every way he can

Meet Iraq's Steve Irwin

Meet Iraq's Steve Irwin
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In the corner of an unassuming restaurant in Baghdad, children are being taken on a journey around the world.

They huddle around glass tanks, necks craning for a better look at the snakes and reptiles on display as Mahdi Laith, 36, tells them about the creatures and where they come from.

“Raising awareness about climate change, environment and wildlife is a must in Iraq, not only by the government but also by the citizens, mainly the youth,” Mr Laith — who is often compared to the late Australian TV conservationist Steve Irwin — told The National.

It is even more critical now, as the population of 40 million has been reeling under extreme weather events over the past three years that have badly affected communities and livelihoods.

Mr Mahdi is part of a growing environmental activist community in Iraq, a country which is ranked the fifth most vulnerable in the world to climate change, according to the UN Environment Programme.

The journey began when his father bought him his first pet as a reward for passing exams. As his interest in the natural world increased, he joined the Iraqi Green Climate Organisation, through which a 2018 event was held at a Baghdad shopping mall including live reptiles to mark World Wildlife Day.

“I was surprised that most of those who attended were children and I was amazed how they interacted,” said the father of three. “Then, I realised that the change we seek will come from the children.”

“It’s hard for old people to change their habits, so we are focusing on children and that will definitely have a positive impact in the future,” he said.

Since then, he has been focusing on educating the younger generation.

Sometimes he visits schools or takes the students to the zoo to talk about wildlife and the climate crisis, even becoming a regular sight on social media and TV channels, often with pythons slung around his neck or holding a spiny-tailed lizard or turtles.

He doesn't just educate. Mr Laith also takes direct action. He spends his spare time trawling Baghdad's animal market to spot animals that are not supposed to be sold — mainly endangered species endemic to Iraq.

Every Friday, pet lovers flock to the Al Ghazil market to sell and buy a variety of animals including birds, peacocks, dogs, cats, goats, ornamental fish, and even snakes, wild falcons and owls.

He walks in the crowded outdoor market and films the exhausted falcons with their wings taped, reptiles such as the spiny-tailed lizards in cages or endangered birds endemic to Iraq.

In his videos, he tries to explain to the sellers, many of them teenagers, why these animals are not considered pets and that they need to be released.

“They ignore me. They are avaricious, even the kids, they tell me: 'you can buy and release them,'” he said, adding that his posts have caused problems with some in the pet market and hunters, a few of whom have threatened him with tribal justice.

Mr Laith's passion for the environment has also spread online; he has 220,000 followers on Instagram and more than 300,000 on Facebook, where he shares videos of animals he meets and messages about the perils they are facing due to climate change.

In one of his most viewed videos, he holds a small cage made of metal wire with a white-throated Kingfisher inside.

“This bird is not for cages in houses. Its place is the wild, in which it dives into the water to catch a fish or frog,” he says.

“They hunt animals without knowing anything about them, how they live and what they need,” he writes in a post with the video. “This bird can't be in a cage and therefore it will die.”

The video receives numerous comments from followers, mainly expressing sympathy and anger.

“This is a heart-rending scene,” one follower says. Another says: “Al Ghazil market has become a slaughterhouse for some animals that can't be kept in houses and it should be closed down”.

Mr Laith said that at the beginning a lot of people “mocked me, but later they realised the problem and started talking about it and taking action.” He added that many of his followers send him videos related to releasing animals or stopping illegal hunting.

One of the most pressing issues is dwindling water flows in Iraq's main rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, due to upstream dams in Turkey and Iran, mismanagement and environmental degradation. The country is experiencing the worst drought in decades as temperatures this summer exceeded 50°C.

“We will bemoan each drop of water that we are wasting today,” he added.

“The government is blamed for part of our water-related problems while we the people are responsible for the other part.

“The people have to appreciate the water and don’t waste it, protect the environment and keep the rivers clean.”

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Updated: December 06, 2022, 10:06 AM