Central Marshes

Country/territory: Iraq

IBA Criteria met: A1, A2, A3, A4i, A4ii, A4iii (2015)
For more information about IBA criteria please click here

Area: 131,780 ha

Protection status:

Nature Iraq
Most recent IBA monitoring assessment
Year of assessment Threat score (pressure) Condition score (state) Action score (response)
2013 very high not assessed negligible
For more information about IBA monitoring please click here

Site description
The Central Marshes comprise a vast complex of mostly permanent freshwater marshes with scattered areas of open water, to the west of the River Tigris and to the north of the River Euphrates (30°50'N--31°30'N, 46°45'E--47°25'E). The marshes are fed by both rivers, and at maximum flooding in late spring they cover an area of about 3,000 km2. Almost the entire area is covered in tall reedbeds of Phragmites and Typha. Large portions of the marshes are difficult of access, and have seldom been visited by biologists. To the north, between the marshes and the Tigris, lies extensive cultivation, including rice fields and huge sugar-cane polders. The Ma'dan or Marsh Arabs have lived in these marshes for at least 5,000 years, but the majority have now been displaced by massive habitat destruction (see 'Conservation issues').

Key biodiversity
No comprehensive surveys of birds or wildlife have ever been undertaken. Georg and Vielliard visited the Al Azair area (in the north-east) in January 1967; Koning and Dijksen visited the Chabaish Marshes (in the south-east) in December 1972; Carp and Scott visited the Feraigat Marshes (in the north) and the Chabaish Marshes in January 1979. Other notable wintering species included Ciconia ciconia (103), Plegadis falcinellus (150) and Circus aeruginosus (73). The entire area was listed as a wetland of international importance by Carp (1980). Portions of this vast wetland which are, or were, known or thought to be of special importance for waterfowl include the following (comments on current status are based on study of a Landsat image from August 1992).

Feraigat Marshes (31°30'N 47°10'E) The north-easternmost section of the marshes, fed by flood waters from the Tigris. Known to support huge concentrations of wildfowl in winter (Savage 1968). In the 1950s Anser anser occasionally remained to breed. Much of this area has now been drained.

Al Azair Marshes (31°17'N 47°23'E) The north-easternmost section of the marshes, just west of the River Tigris. According to Savage (1968), this area of seasonal and permanent marshes was the principal known haunt of Oxyura leucocephala in Iraq. The village of Al Azair is also known as 'Ezra's Tomb' in earlier literature. These marshes have now been drained.

Haur Umm Al Binni Marshes (31°15'N 47°05'E) A large area of predominantly permanent marshes around Haur Umm Al Binni lake in the west-central part of the marshes. According to Savage (1968), these marshes were important habitat for wintering Aythya ferina. Marmaronetta angustirostris was reported to breed. Some of this area may now have been drained.

Fartus Marshes (31°10'N 46°55'E) Along the western edge of the Central Marshes. According to Savage (1968), this area, which includes the Sabil Al Awaidiya, was the habitat of large numbers of wintering Aythya ferina and Anser sp. Marmaronetta angustirostris was said to breed. This area may not yet have been affected by drainage.

Haur Az Zikri (31°10'N 47°10'E) The very large open-water lake in the centre of the marshes, said to be very important for wintering waterfowl (Savage 1968). This area may now have been drained.

Chabaish Marshes (31°00'N 47°00'E) A large area of permanent and temporary marshes in the south, including Haur Birkat (Birkat Baghdad), flooded both from the Tigris and the Euphrates (Savage 1968). This area may not yet have been affected by drainage.

Al Jazair Marshes (31°00'N 47°15'E) The extensive marshes on the north bank of the Euphrates before its confluence with the Tigris (Savage 1968). At least the eastern sector of these marshes has now been drained.

Non-bird biodiversity: Mammals: Lutra perspicillata (K; the subspecies L. p. maxwelli is endemic to the marshes and endangered), Gerbillus mesopotamiae (endemic), Erythronesokia bunnii (endemic).

2014 updates. Additional Important Bird Observations: During the surveys, 94 bird species were observed. In addition to those listed in the table, two Vulnerable species, Greater Spotted Eagle Aquila clanga and Eastern Imperial Eagle A. heliaca were found wintering, as well as five Near Threatened species: Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca (summer and winter), Pallid Harrier Circus cyaneus, Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata, Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa (passage and winter) and Cinereous Vulture Aegypius monachus (seen in winter 2013), but in sub-IBA threshold numbers. The endemic race of Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis iraquensis breeds widely. Other Important Fauna: Data were collected 2005-2010, but with more focused attention in 2007. The southern marshes lie at the center of the distribution of an isolated subspecies of smooth-coated Otter Lutrogale perspicillata maxwelli. Its status and distribution have been unclear due to confusion with the Eurasian Otter Lutra lutra (Near Threatened), which also occurs in the region. Recent surveys (Omer et al. 2012, Al-Sheikhly and Nader 2013) have confirmed the presence of smooth-coated otter in parts of the southern marshes for the first time since the 1950s-1960s and it is likely that this species occurs in the Central Marshes too, as well as other parts of the Tigris wetlands and marshes on both sides of the Iran-Iraq border. Some notable mammals found during the surveys (and according to local reports) were: Rüppell's FoxVulpes rueppellii,Jungle Cat Felis chaus and Wild Cat Felis silvestris. Due to the availability of food and shelter, it seems the Central Marshes provide good habitat for the Endangered Rafetus euphraticus. Fish: Data were collected from 2005 through 2007 and again in 2009, during which18 species were found. These were: Acanthopagrus cf. arabicus, Acanthobrama marmid, Alburnus mossulensis, Carasobarbus luteus, Carassius auratus, Cyprinus carpio, Cyprinion kais, Heteropneustes fossilis, Leuciscus vorax, Liza abu, L. klunzingeri, Luciobarbus esocinus, L. xanthopterus, Mesopotamichthys sharpeyi, Tenualosa ilisha, Tilapia zillii and Silurus triostegus. The latter appears to be increasing. In addition Mastacembelus mastacembelus was also documented, which is of no economic importance but their conservation status in Iraq is unknown. This site contains a good population of an economically and local heritage important plant, Phragmites australis.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2021) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Central Marshes. Downloaded from on 26/01/2021.