CHIBAYISH, IRAQ (AFP) – The small motorboat chugging through southern Iraq’s marshes is similar to those tourists use to explore the vast swamplands.
But this boat has a difference; it is used by veterinarians as an animal ambulance to bring critical healthcare for livestock, and especially the water buffalo iconic to the marshlands, facing an ever-growing threat from the impacts both of rampant pollution and climate change.
“This veterinary ambulance is the first and only initiative of its kind in the swamps of Iraq,” said veterinarian Karrar Ibrahim Hindi, as he headed out to treat a sick buffalo.
The swamps, nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and also known as the Mesopotamian Marshes, is one of the world’s largest inland deltas.
The wetlands barely survived the wrath of dictator Saddam Hussein, who ordered the marshes be drained in 1991 as punishment for communities protecting insurgents and to hunt them down.
But after Saddam was toppled, Iraq pledged to preserve the ecosystem and provide functional services to the marshland communities, and they were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2016 both for their biodiversity and their ancient history.
Today, the people in the marshes eke out a living from breeding buffaloes, as well as fishing and tourism.
Buffalo milk is renowned throughout Iraq for the strength it is supposed to give to those who drink it, and farmers use it to make the creamy guemar cheese.
After his consultation, Hindi hopped back into the narrow boat, perfect for navigating the maze of thin channels.
There are an estimated 30,000 buffaloes in the wetlands, but herds vary in size. Some farmers have just a handful of animals, while others have as many as a hundred.
But when the buffaloes fall sick, the farmers have previously struggled to get proper veterinary treatment. Before, they had to guess why the animal was ill, and go to get drugs themselves.
“The farmer cannot transport it to town, so they risk making an incorrect diagnosis,” said Director of the Iraqi Green Climate Organisation Mukhtar Mohammed Said.
So with the farmers unable to bring their buffaloes to the vets, the vets go to visit by boat.
At the home of buffalo breeder Sabah Thamer, the vet team arrives to help his animals.
“Some herders don’t have money and they only have one or two buffaloes,” said Thamer, explaining that the vet services are free, but not the drugs the animals might need.
“They don’t know how to get them treated,” Thamer added. “So the buffaloes get sick, their condition gets worse for two or three days and they die.”