Saving the Iraqi Partridges

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In the southwestern outskirts of Baghdad, not far from the airport, the presence of American soldiers has had at least one unexpected benefit. It has fostered the revival of a nearly extinct species of partridge.

The black partridge (francolinus francolinus) were almost hunted into extinction in the Saddam years by Iraqi sportsmen-hunters. But these days, that part of Baghdad is under U.S. military protection — it adjoins the largest military base in Iraq — and any Iraqi wielding a gun is liable to be tossed in jail on suspicion of being a terrorist. So no hunters dare go there, and the birds have made a strong comeback.

Local farmers in the area say partridge sightings, once rare, have become commonplace. One farmer told TIME his farm is being overrun by the birds. He'd like nothing better than to shoot a few — they make delicious eating, he says. But he worries that the gunshots may be overheard by the Americans. So the grouse swagger around unharmed. "They come right up to my door," he says. "It's as if they know they are untouchable."

North of Baghdad, near Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, the presence of American troops has led to a similar revival of another species once popular with Iraqi hunters: the sand grouse. The two bird species are featured in Iraqi postage stamps in the pre-Saddam era.

Hunting was a favorite pastime in pre-war Iraq; most families own at least one weapon. Saddam and his sons were keen hunters, stocking the compounds of their palaces with game birds and hares. But some of the most popular hunting areas, south of the Iraqi capital along the banks of the Tigris and Eurphrates rivers, have become strongholds of insurgent and terrorist groups; few Baghdad residents dare venture there. Late last year, the owner of one of Baghdad's largest gun stores said many of his customers were exchanging their hunting rifles for AK-47s — the better to protect their homes.