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By Keeping Poachers Out, Mine Fields Give Endangered Animals Somewhere to Hide

The heavily-mined Iran-Iraq border is a sanctuary for the Persian leopard

A Persian leopard cub at Zoo Augsburg in Germany (David & Micha Sheldon/F1 Online/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

A field of unexploded landmines is a sinister threat. Responsible for tens of thousands of deaths over the past 15 years, landmines take a significant toll, both physically and mentally, on the communities who live nearby.

Fear of unexploded mines makes people steer clear of previously useful lands, preventing development and promoting a legacy of social plight, says the Guardian. Yet for the animals who so often find themselves in poachers' sights, minefields become an ad hoc sanctuary, says National Geographic—a place to live free of human encroachment.

In the 1980s, at the height of the Iran-Iraq war, “Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and his Iranian counterparts planted an estimated 20 million to 30 million land mines” along the countries' shared border, says National Geographic. Those mines keep hunters out of certain parts of the Zagros Mountains, giving the endangered Persian leopard a foothold.

The market for leopard pelts has mostly dried up, but there's still a certain cachet associated with ensnaring such an exotic creature. As a result, the harsh penalties attached to killing leopards haven't done much to dissuade determined trophy hunters.

The land mines, though, do a good job of keeping people off certain peaks, and these have become the leopards' favorite haunts.

The case of the Persian leopard is yet another example of how when humans are forced to abandon a patch of land, the natural world is all too quick to take it up. On the Korean Peninsula, the undeveloped strip between the North and South Koreas has become a refuge for wildlife, says the Guardian:

[T]he Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, is home to thousands of species that are extinct or endangered elsewhere on the peninsula. It is the last haven for many of these plants and animals and the centre of attention for those intent on preserving Korea's rich ecological heritage.

Yet unlike the Korean DMZ, a wildlife preserve maintained by a fierce militaristic stand-off, the original pressure along the Iraq-Iran border has faded.

The Zagros Mountains are full of oil and minerals, and mining companies are looking to push into the region. But development would come at the cost of leopard habitat, says NatGeo, which means that some of “the region's conservationists now find themselves in the not-so-comfortable position of opposing some land-mine clearance efforts.”

About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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