Hashim al-Musawi leans back, takes a drag on his cigarette and enjoys the country views. “I remember once when I was returning from a hunting trip by myself around sunset, I was attacked by wolves,” says al-Musawi, who at 60 is one of the oldest guides working in the Tayeb area, near the Iranian border. “I knew I couldn’t outrun them so I stopped the bike, got off and started to shoot. That saved my life,” he says, gamely concluding his tale of derring-do.
Many of the hunting guides working in this area have similar stories. It is not only wildlife they need to fear while out on a trip, but also lost landmines, kidnappers, border guards, flash floods in the rainy season and accidentally getting caught in the middle of a tribal conflict.
But according to the guides it’s worth it – not just for the money but also because they love the sport.
“We make agreements prior to setting out, depending on what kinds of animals the hunting party wants to bag and how long they want to camp out in the country,” explains Murtada al-Kharasan, 35, another of the guides. “We take between US$100 and US$200 a day for deer hunting and between US$70 and US$100 for birds.”
After the Iran-Iraq war finished in the late 1980s, the Tayeb area, in Maysan province, about 30 kilometres east of the provincial capital, Amarah, started to become known for its hunting potential. Many of the clients came from the United Arab Emirates looking to trap peregrine falcons and kill other birds.
“I used to go with them because they would ask for help from the locals,” guide Karim Abu Mohammed, 58, told NIQASH. “In the mid-90s I was presented with a very beautiful rifle from some of the Emirati hunters, after I helped them catch a falcon,” he recalls.
However, since the security situation in Iraq began to deteriorate, from 2003 onwards, the stream of clients from the Gulf States has dried up. At the end of 2015 there was a kidnapping incident involving a large contingent from Qatar and that has put potential guests off even more, Mohammed notes. Now most of the hunters in this area come from inside Iraq.
Most hunters prefer to go hunting in the winter, when temperatures are cooler and when migrating birds arrive here from northern Europe.
“In the off-season we look for other animals like rabbits, wild pigs and deer,” local guide Muhannad Ahmad, 45, explains.
Most often the guides will take their clients or their friends to locations near the Iranian border in SUV-style vehicles that can handle the terrain and then set up camp there. Hunting takes place either on foot or in the cars, depending on what kind of animal the hunters are after. Sometimes hunting dogs are used, or traps, or nets – even though nets are actually banned.
Some birds are caught only to provide food to the campers. “Other birds are trapped in order to be trained as hunting birds,” says Karim Baridi, 37, a local hunter. “Hunters also use different kinds of traps, some of which are used to catch large numbers of migrating birds, which are then sold.”
“We only find deer in the more mountainous areas and their numbers have really decreased due to over hunting,” Baridi adds.
Hunting deer is still Baridi’s favourite pastime but around here it’s considered more dangerous than other kinds of hunting. “The nature of the terrain, the border guards and possible unexploded munitions are the biggest worries,” he says. “Three years ago, one of the guides lost a leg.”
The hunters use a range of different rifles, that have cost them between IQD100,000 (around US$83) and IQD200,000, although one of the guides, al-Kharasan, is particularly proud of his US$3,000 Belgian rifle.
Despite all the dangers, and occasionally the lack of paying clients, all of the guides in Maysan say they will continue to do this work. Because, as al-Kharasan says: “Passion for hunting is what really motivates us.”