Kurdish animal rights activists released six bears into their natural habitat in the Iraqi mountains yesterday.
The bears were previously kept in cages as pets in people’s private homes in Duhok, Iraq.
One bear charged towards the crowd of spectators when it was released, before wandering off into the snowy Gara Mountain. Hundreds of activists, photographers, police and soldiers had gathered by the public road that runs around the mountain for the event.
The Kurdish American Cooperation Organisation (KACO), the local wildlife conservation group that released the bears, was notified by local activists of homes where the bears were held captive. There is no law in Iraq against private individuals holding wild animals such as bears, lions and tigers in captivity, and local activists say this is a growing trend in recent years.
This is the third time since 2017 that KACO has released bears from captivity in Iraq. The organisation released four bears in 2017 and a further two in 2018 – one of which attacked the crowd and injured at least one photographer when it was released.
Syrian brown bears have become almost extinct in the mountains of Kurdistan in eastern Iraq. Wildlife snatchers hunt Syrian brown bears for their fur, for their bile and other bodily substances, which are sold for use in traditional Chinese medicine, and to sell them on as pets to private individuals. And as climate change and agricultural developments erode their natural habitat, the bears often enter human settlement areas in search of food, where they are exposed to hunters and snatchers and are often killed by locals as a pest control measure.
While the Ursus arctos (brown bear) species as a whole is considered ‘of least concern’, the Syrian brown bear, a Middle Eastern subspecies, is endangered. It once ranged across the Middle East, but has been extinct in Syria for fifty years and is nearing extinction in Iraq.
Mature Syrian brown bears can weigh up to 250kg and reach a nose-to-tail length of up to 2.5 metres, making them the smallest brown bear subspecies. They have pale brown fur and are distinctive for their white claws – a trait that is unique to this subspecies.