“As a child, you would find me hanging off tree branches or inspecting the earth for bugs,” recalls Iraqi wildlife activist Mahdi Laith, better known as the “snake man of Baghdad” for his widely publicized photos with snakes and other reptiles.
The animal enthusiast tells Al-Monitor that his love for wildlife came from his father. Laith spent his early childhood in London, where his first encounters with wild animals were limited to the zoos and nature parks his family would take him to. Some of the animals he now keeps at home in Kerrada, an upper-middle-class district of Baghdad, are the same ones that fascinated him in the London zoos.
Born outside of Iraq in 1986, Laith and his family spent years living in different countries. They finally came home in 2004, a few months after Baghdad was invaded by American troops. Today the “snake man” manages one of the local branches of his family-owned fast food chain. “I hope to break away eventually and open up my own pet store or sanctuary, a dream that requires funds and sponsorship to materialize.”
“My love extends to all animals, but I have a weak spot for reptiles,” says Laith, whose passion is reflected in a collection of photos that feature him with turtles, iguanas, lizards, parrots, snakes and plenty more.
Laith took his first step toward becoming a public figure last year by appearing on Saif Albasha’s Iraqi lifestyle television show accompanied by Ronny, his Asiatic reticulated python. “I raised similar pythons which have grown as long as two meters," he told a petrified-looking Albasha. By then, he had already taken a yearlong job in Malaysia working in the wildlife trade, breeding and exporting exotic pets. The job came to a quick end when he could not renew his visa.
Back in March this year, Laith and volunteers from two local nongovernmental organizations — the Iraqi Green Climate Organization and Iraqi Wildlife Centre — made a splash when they took over the ground floor of Babylon Mall in Baghdad with their collection of snakes, lizards and other exotic creatures that society views as dangerous or even as omens inviting bad luck. The pop-up wildlife sanctuary, set up in celebration of World Wildlife Day on March 3, was well received, Laith recalls. He says, “The turnout surprised us. The children came and handled the animals with care, enthusiasm and curiosity … they fell in love with them."
Laith defines his mission to Al-Monitor as a quest to reconnect Iraqis with wildlife in order to cultivate “respectful coexistence” between humans and animals. He says that the largest barrier that stands in the way of wildlife conservation is “hearsay and false perceptions about animal behavior,” which he believes “inspire fear instead of love.” That is why he keeps posing with wild animals and talks about how he loves to keep them — to show that not all snakes are poisonous or dangerous.
“The protection of Iraq’s [animal] landscape is our responsibility,” says Laith, warning that “receding water levels, increasing salinity, climate and demographic changes" continue to plague Iraq’s southern marshes even after they were officially included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016. “Outward migration may also place wildlife at greater risk if the native population is replaced by communities with little know-how and resources to sufficiently care for them."
He also draws attention to the illegal hunting and trade of animals. “Some of these animals are killed because of their uniqueness,” he explains, citing the marbled teal and agile Euphrates soft-shelled turtle as examples.
The endangered turtle is hunted for what locals believe are its medicinal properties that can ease arthritis and fever. A quick search on YouTube yields gruesome videos of the reptile being skinned and sold in local markets. “Several of this species near the Euphrates Valley and Tharthar … [are] held in small tanks … for transportation to Saudi Arabia” where the demand is also high, Iraqi NGO Nature Iraq noted in its 2011 report on illegal hunting and the wildlife trade.
While hunting has historically been at the core of community survival in Iraq, poaching poses an enduring challenge, threatening the decline of certain species. As increasing numbers of Iraqis fall below the poverty line, the country’s rich ecosystem has fallen prey to unregulated hunting practices. "The few laws that do exist go unenforced by the Iraqi authorities,” read the Nature Iraq report.
Iraq’s unique wildlife has also fallen victim to irreversible neglect as a consequence of prolonged drought and the country’s unbroken chain of occupation and war. Another Iraqi conservationist that spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity echoed Laith’s concerns, but praised the efforts of a growing network of what he calls “eco-activists” for raising the profile of Iraq’s vulnerable and near-endangered mammalian species.
However, praise for Laith's activities is not universal.
“Despite Laith’s good intentions to protect Iraq’s unique wildlife, some experts say that he sets a poor example by keeping of exotic pets in a domestic environment," London-based biologist Clifford Warwick, who, like Laith, used to keep pet reptiles of his own, told Al-Monitor. “At least 75% of reptiles and over 90% of fish die within their first year in the home. … I often wonder how long it will take others to realize their errors.”