NOEL KING, HOST:
Big cats used to live in the remote mountain ranges of Iraq. Notice the use of the past tense. Because for years, wildlife experts thought they were all gone. But one biologist suspected there might still be some, and she came up with a plan to find them. Here's NPR's Alice Fordham.
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ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Here in the northeast of Iraq, there's a jagged ridge of mountains stretching over to the border with Iran. A forest of oak trees clings to the sides, and emerald valleys lie below.
HANA RAZA: I think the mountains, by nature, give, like, serenity to a lot of people. The vegetation, the greenery, the birds that you see - all of that impact you without you realizing.
FORDHAM: I came to a cabin on the edge of this mountain range with biologist Hana Raza with the group Nature Iraq. She studies the region's wildlife and began more than a decade ago by asking locals what animals they saw.
RAZA: These people were, like, telling us, yes, they've seen jackals and foxes, but nothing else.
FORDHAM: Raza knew that over the border in Iran, there were hundreds of a species of cat called the Persian leopard. But people here in Iraq said they hadn't seen any of those.
RAZA: Every time I was asking about leopards, they were saying that their forefathers have mentioned that they've seen leopards. They were telling me stories as old as the 1970s and '80s, but nothing else were recorded.
FORDHAM: But she suspected there might be a few. In fact, leopards are often found in troubled border areas like the one between Iran and Iraq, where border security and minefields mean there are few humans to bother them. Raza decided to hide cameras on mountain paths. She worked with local police.
RAZA: One of the forest police told me that, you know, he knows trails that he thinks is used by large animals, by large mammals, and he would help me to set camera traps in that, you know, trail.
FORDHAM: Two months later, they retrieved the cameras and began going through the images. Raza's colleague called her one day after she'd left work.
RAZA: And he was so excited and thrilled that, oh, the camera trap - there's a leopard, there's a leopard. And I was, like - I was in the taxi. I couldn't scream or anything. But I was just screaming from joy from inside.
FORDHAM: That was back in 2011. They photographed more leopards in 2016 and 2017. It was a big deal for a vulnerable species.
TANYA ROSEN: The fact that there could be leopards still surviving in Iraq was, I mean, an astonishing discovery.
FORDHAM: This is Tanya Rosen, an international conservation expert who specializes in Persian leopards and other subspecies in the Middle East and Asia.
ROSEN: Definitely the most imperiled, the most endangered, and the ones that we can see - unless there are some strong conservation efforts, there is a risk that this subspecies could go extinct.
FORDHAM: The leopards' habitats are threatened by development. Their bones are in demand to make traditional remedies in Asia. And conservation is complicated by politics. In 2018, in Iran, officials arrested members of a conservation group working with leopards, accusing the scientists of spying. They were sentenced to years in prison. Here in Iraq, there is some hope. Authorities have allowed this mountain area to be a nature reserve.
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FORDHAM: Down in the valley - farming country - people are a little scared of leopards.
JABBAR RAOUF: (Speaking non-English language).
FORDHAM: Jabbar Raouf says once in the mountain he heard roaring, which he thinks was a leopard. He fired his rifle to scare it off. But now, he welcomes the conservation efforts. This is a beautiful but very poor area.
RAOUF: (Speaking non-English language).
FORDHAM: He says if companies start ecotourism, the villagers could make a little money. And maybe those visitors will spot a cat. Recently, two locals reported seeing a female leopard roaming the mountains with her cubs.
Alice Fordham, NPR News, Sulaymaniyah Province, Iraq.
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