Hana Raza was born in one of the Peshmerga camps of freedom fighters in Iraqi Kurdistan. When she was only few months old, the camp where she was staying was attacked with chemical weapons. Her family fled up into the mountains, where they and other families sought protection. Today, Hana protects the mountains that provided her safety and shelter when she was a child. With a master’s degree in Ecology and Wildlife Conservation and after being part of the Nature Iraq team for thirteen years, Hana set up her own nature organisation: Leopards Beyond Borders.

Images © Hana Raza

An extinct species?

The Persian leopard plays a leading role in Hana’s work. After four decades of war in Iraq, this species seemed to be extinct in Iraqi Kurdistan, just like the Asiatic lion and cheetah. When Hana started working as a conservationist in 2009, talks with the local people confirmed that the leopard had not been seen in years: the last encounter was in the early 1980s. The stories Hana heard were about encounters between the elusive predator and the grandparents or even the great-great-grandparents of the people she interviewed.

Not only the Persian leopard was not seen again during this time; local people saw little wildlife in general. The decision of Hana and her team to protect the wild goats drew the attention of the leaders in the area. Unfortunately, the conservationists were seen as a threat and had to leave the study site, after which the team stationed themselves in the Qara Dagh area. This turned out for the best: in 2011 the camera traps in this area delivered proof that the Persian leopard still exists in northern Iraq.

Leopards Beyond Borders

With the NGO Leopards Beyond Borders, Hana wants to inform, inspire and empower people to stop the extinction of wild animals. Through education and conservation action, her team works with local communities on sustainable use of natural resources. This way, they protect the habitat of endangered species and the NGO contributes to the preservation of biodiversity.

Qara Dagh: first protected area in Iraqi Kurdistan

The presence of the Persian Leopard was the reason for the establishment of the Qara Dagh Nature Reserve. Nature Iraq signed an agreement with the Regional Government of Iraqi Kurdistan through a partnership with the Environmental Protection and Improvement Commission, recognising Qara Dagh as the first formally protected area of the Kurdish Autonomous Region. With support from the IUCN NL Land Acquisition Fund, the NGO was able to finance management, equipment, salaries and the construction of a sustainable eco-lodge.

Qara Dagh Nature Reserve is a ridge of dense oak forests covering nearly 2,300 hectares. The reserve has multiple ecosystems such as montane forests, subalpine thorny scrub and riverine forests. The area has almost a thousand plant species and more than 180 different recorded bird species. Camera trap monitoring identified 15 different mammal species in Qara Dagh.

‘You cannot tell starving people to stop eating animals. We must take the time to educate and inspire them to understand how things can be done differently.’

Hana Raza

A safe home in the mountains

In 2013, Hana became a member of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group and since 2016 she has been leading a project focusing on transboundary habitat of the Persian leopard. For this project, Hana did field research and talked with the local communities. It soon became apparent that people in the area were excited about the return of the predator.

Although stories circulated of people lying in bed sick with fear for months after encountering the animal, the people Hana spoke to did not feel threatened. In fact, the locals even felt connected to the leopards. The Kurds have a saying: ‘we have no friends but the mountains,’ which implies that they rely on the mountains as their only trusted allies. Like the leopards, the Kurds, including Hana, found a safe home in the mountains when they needed it the most.

Mutual understanding and finding middle ground

It was good news that the local people were positive about the Persian leopard, but Hana did realise that this could change. The enthusiasm could have come from the fact that the animals were so rare. But as numbers increase, the chance of conflict between humans and animals also increases. The possibility that people would change their opinion was an important motivation for the biologist to keep talking to them.

Through these conversations, the young conservationist learned that mutual understanding is essential. She experienced that, as a conservationist, it is essential not to judge people who are less aware of nature and that it is crucial to seek connection. It was important for Hana to listen to people, hear their problems and find middle ground.

A woman in a man’s world

Hana has achieved a lot in the Qara Dagh Nature Reserve, but her path was – and is – not easy. She sees no difference between her male colleagues and herself, but the outside world sees it differently. As a female conservationist, she is often reminded of the traditional division of roles: a woman marries and has children. A woman has her limitations.

Hana’s parents told her not to let government and society’s restrictions on women hold her back. A daughter of freedom fighters does not simply accept restrictions imposed by others.

Her mindset, skills and knowledge have brought the conservationist a lot: she won a Future For Nature Award in 2017, and an honoree of The Explorer’s Club 50: fifty people changing the world who the world needs to know about in 2022. Recently, Hana set up her own NGO. Every day she proves those wrong who say that a woman cannot or should not. This gives her the strength to persist in her work as a conservationist.

Conserving nature as a calling

Protecting nature in an unsafe and complex context is not an easy task. Hana goes into the field for months at a time and travels to remote areas to talk to the mountain communities. She travels through areas that are unsafe for women and men. But this does not change the love and passion she feels for her country, the leopards and other wildlife. Because of this, she established her own NGO. ‘Nature is not just my cause, it is my calling. Without this burning passion in my heart, I would not last a day in the fight to protect it,’ shares Hana.

More infromation?

Marc Hoogeslag
Senior Expert Nature Conservation
Frederique Holle
Expert Environmental Justice