CHIBAISH, Iraq — "Don't move a muscle." His command cut across the reeds rustling in the wind. On a moonlit embankment several kilometers from shore in Iraq's celebrated southern marshes, everyone stood still.
Omar al-Sheikhly shined a flashlight across a muddy patch. "Nothing," he said, shaking his head. His team of five exhaled in unison.
The environmentalist spearheaded this midnight expedition through the marshes of Chibaish. It is the latest in a quixotic mission that has spanned nearly two decades: to find any sign of Maxwell's smooth-coated otter, a severely endangered species endemic to Iraq whose precarious existence is vital to the iconic wetlands.
Most of al-Sheikhly's pursuits have been in vain; the quick-witted otter has always been one step ahead. But as climate change looms, finding evidence they still exist assumes new importance. Al-Sheikhly is among the conservationists issuing a stark warning: Without quick action to protect the otters, the delicate underwater ecology of the UNESCO protected site will be disrupted, and could all but wither away, putting at risk the centuries-old Iraqi marsh communities that depend on it.
At stake is everything: "We stand to lose our Iraqi heritage," said al-Sheikhly, who is the technical director at Iraqi Green Climate Organization.
Studies indicate there are between 200-900 smooth-coated otters left in the marshlands. Dangerously unpredictable water levels, illegal fishing and neglect are driving their demise.
This year, Iraq is set to face an insufferable summer, with Turkish dam projects on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers compounding a year of low rainfall. "There is a real crisis," Water Resources Minister Mahdi Rasheed al-Hamdani said this month.
Water rates from both rivers are half what they were last year, he said.
The Associated Press accompanied al-Sheikhly and his team on a 12-hour mission over two days in early May. At 8 a.m. on the second morning, al-Sheikhly was off again.
In long wooden canoes — called mashuf — they traversed narrow waterways lined with dense reedbeds crisscrossing the heart of the wetlands.
Jumping fish left ripples in their wake. Water buffalos languidly chewed grass. A kingfisher dove headfirst to catch unsuspecting prey.
As dragonflies chased his water-borne convoy, al-Sheikhly named whatever animal crossed his path as though they were acquaintances. "Marbled duck," he pointed. "Squacco heron." He has been studying them for 18 years.
Finding the evasive smooth-coated otter is the equivalent of winning the lottery. Since their discovery in 1956 by Scottish naturalist Gavin Maxwell, the otter, distinguished by its sleek dark fur and flattened tail, has only been photographed twice: when it was first found, and 60 years later, by al-Sheikhly.
Locals had tipped him off that otters were seen in the part of the marshes close to the Iran border. There, on the remnants of an old military road forged by Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, he waited for six hours. He saw the otter for only a few seconds.
Because research efforts are so poorly funded and otters themselves are so hard to find, studies about the species have relied on their dead skins for signs of life.
In January 2006, the fresh skin of an adult male was obtained from a local fisherman — it was among the first indications that the otter still thrived.
On this mission al-Sheikhly watched for signs they leave behind: footprints, discarded fish heads, local sightings. He goes to areas they prefer, such as lakes lined with reedbeds and muddy shores.
In the central marshes of Dhi Qar province, his team happened upon two fishermen unloading the day's catch. Al-Sheikhly stopped and asked them when they had last seen an otter — local observations are a main part of survey efforts.
"Maybe one year ago," said one, piling mullets, catfish and carp onto a pickup.
Al-Sheikhly furrowed his brow.
"That is a big concern, if the local community sees them rarely it means something has happened," he explained.
Their importance can't be underestimated. To environmentalists, otters are known as "bio-indicators," species used to assess the health of an entire ecosystem. Because they are on top of the food chain in Iraq's marshes, eating fish and sometimes birds, their presence ensures balance.
There was a time when the otters were abundant.
British explorer Wilfred Thesiger, a contemporary of Maxwell, wrote in his travel book Marsh Arabs about one occasion when he spotted two otters playing a hundred yards away. "They appeared upright in the water, eyeing us for a few seconds, before they dived and disappeared."
In that moment, his Iraqi escort reached for a gun. "Their skins were worth a dinar a piece," he wrote. The durable otter skins were popular among smugglers who used them to transport illicit goods.
Hunting is on the decline, but electric pulse fishing, illegal but widely practiced in the south, is partly to blame. The electric pulse paralyzes the otter. Most die.
The fishermen who were questioned earlier each had electrocution devices on their boats, visible despite attempts to disguise them with carpets.
Al-Sheikhly said this might account for why otters are hard to spot. "Otters are smart, they know they are under threat and change their behaviors."
Adaptability served them well throughout Iraq's tumultuous history. The otters were feared extinct when Saddam drained the marshes in the 1990s to flush out hiding Shiite rebels. Since 2003, they have had to navigate a new Iraq where growing urban sprawl and industrialization has taken precedence.
As a result, Iraqi marsh communities are increasingly losing touch with the wetlands they dwell in.
On an island grazing ground for water buffalos, a marsh Arab boy tended to the animals. In the background, oil flares shot plumes of acrid smoke into the air — a ubiquitous sight in crude-rich southern Iraq.
But the greatest enemy to Iraq's endemic otter species is an incalculable one: Water.
Cruising through a wide waterway, al-Sheikhly said that just last year the entire channel had been dry. Flooding re-filled it, but little rainfall this year threatens levels again. Experts said it is already decreasing by one centimeter a day.
One local woman, Um Muntadhar, said when the water dries up, the birds migrate and her livestock dies. "It is not livable here anymore," she said.
The U.N. estimates at least 250 square kilometers (96 square miles) of fertile land in Iraq is lost annually to desertification. Rising salinity will likely drive out if not wipe away endemic species.
Iraqis largely blame Turkey's Ilisu dam project for shortages. Turkish officials said Iraq's request that Ankara release a set amount of water per year is impossible in the age of climate change.
"So much is unpredictable, we suffer," said one Turkish official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In an open lake at the cusp of the Hammar marshes, al-Sheikhly halted the boat and quickly removed his shoes.
He appeared from a distance like a marshland messiah: knee-deep in water, curly hair dancing in the wind, anchored by a wooden stick.
Threatened from all sides, environmentalists say it will take a miracle to push for conservation of the area.
But al-Sheikhly was absorbed in something unseen. "Listen, listen," he said.