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By Helen Bamford
More than a million South African birds could fly into the dangerous Iraqi war front as they head north for the winter.
The birds, which are accumulating fat as fuel for their long journey, will be flying through Iraq from now until May, before fanning out to their breeding grounds in Asia.
Les Underhill, of the University of Cape Town's avian demography unit, said the SA bird ringing unit had recovered two birds ringed in South Africa that had flown to Iraq.
Underhill said a steppe buzzard, ringed near Bredasdorp, would have been on its way to its breeding grounds in southern Asia.
"The other was a curlew sandpiper, ringed at Langebaan lagoon, which would have been about halfway to its breeding grounds, which lie in the northernmost edge of the Taimyr Peninsula, in the tundra of Siberia."
Underhill said these birds were representative of millions which migrated through Iraq and the Middle East. The bird ringing unit database contained hundreds more recoveries of birds in this general area ringed in South Africa.
Underhill said the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988 and the 1990-1991 Gulf War had destroyed bird habitats.
"One of the main battlegrounds of the Iran-Iraq War were the Mesopotamian marshes, one of the most important bird areas of the Middle East. Vast areas of reedbeds were burnt and wetlands were drained."
He said 90 percent of the wetland, which was two-thirds the size of the Kruger National Park, had been ruined.
During the Gulf War, the world's largest oil spill obliterated millions of hectares of mudflats in the Persian Gulf, vital to birdlife.
Underhill said the loss of critical stop-over and feeding sites like those in Iraq could eventually put the entire migration route out of reach of birds from southern Africa.