Bull sharks probably aren’t the first animal that comes to mind when you think about river fauna in Iraq and Iran. In fact, I would venture that many Westerners would be hard pressed to name, on the fly, any of the many organisms that inhabit these two countries’ network of waterways. Aside from socio-political issues, the environmental heritage of Iran and Iraq is still very much unknown to outsiders, yet both countries have an intriguing natural history legacy that is only recently beginning to see a resurgence in interest following decades of bellicose tumult. For me, one of the most surprising parts of that legacy is the fact that Bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas) are known to frequent the freshwater rivers and creeks as far inland as Baghdad; and this is not a recent development either. Written Arabic accounts from as early as 1263 C.E. hint at the presence of river-running sharks in the region yet in spite of this long legacy, it wasn’t until the Second World War that the Western world really took notice.
Sharks near Ahwaz and Basrah during the Second World War
“If you ever go to Ahwaz, don’t bathe in the river!” This was the emphatic recommendation of Lt. Col. R.S. Hunt of the Royal Medical Corps in a Communication published in the Journal or the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1951. During the Second World War, Hunt was stationed at the 21 Combined General Hospital in the small town of Ahvaz, Iran and it was there that he made a startling discovery. There were sharks in the river and they were deadly.
At the time Hunt was stationed in Ahvaz, it was a small town along the Karun River in southern Iran which had been secured by the British 10th Indian Infantry Division as part of a wider Allied campaign to establish a foothold in the Middle East. Ahvaz was of particular interest because of its oil pumping station and connection to the regional railroad and thus, after it was captured in August, 1941, the British military established a firm presence in the area. Part of that presence was the hospital where Hunt took his post in September of 1941.
Among his first duties was to assume responsibility for a group of surgical patients previously under the care the Field Ambulance service he was relieving. Among those cases was a Nepalese mercenary (colloquially called a “Gurkha soldier” at the time) who had undergone a forequarter amputation (amputation of the arm, scapula, and clavicle) following a shark bite. Hunt was shocked. The alleged ‘shark attack’ occurred near his station in Ahvaz, approximately 80 miles upriver from the Persian Gulf. Surely, this the was result of some other animal.
Hunt wasn’t alone in his observations and assumptions. Prior to his arrival, other British commanders had already received reports of terrible injuries inflicted by an unknown animal (or animals) occupying the freshwater creeks and rivers of the region. In their mind, the obvious culprit was the crocodile, but medical authorities disagreed. From their perspective, “…experience was entirely against the injuries being due to crocodile attack. These grip, hold on, and gradually drag their victims into the water. The present series of injuries indicated a savage wrenching and avulsing attack by some creature armed with numerous shark, inward-curving teeth” Their assessment, coupled with local anecdotal evidence, eventually demonstrated that the savage attacks were, in fact, the result of sharks patrolling the region’s rivers.
Back in Ahvaz, Hunt was already putting the pieces together on his own and had come to the same conclusion. Over the course of his service in the region, he would come to treat 12 more attacks, all on civilians. He even managed to witness two of the attacks first hand and was also present for the capture of a shark measured, on his account, at 4ft 10 in from tip to tail. It was clear that the waters of the Karun River were far from safe and that the sharks within were particularly brazen.
Combatants and civilians in Iran weren’t the only ones experiencing shark troubles. Medical units in Basrah, Iraq were also recording encounters with river-dwelling sharks. Basrah is situated on the Shatt al-Arab, a river formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers some 68 miles from the Persian Gulf. The presence of sharks in the large Shatt al-Arab, though also surprising, didn’t seem quite as extraordinary as their presence in Ahvaz. Nonetheless, it still caused quite a shock for the Western military units unfamiliar with the local wildlife.
Other Accounts of Sharks in the Rivers of Iraq and Iran
Though arguably the most complete, dramatic, and well known account of bull sharks in the freshwater rivers of Iraq and Iran, Hunt’s documentation does not stand alone. Reports of sharks in the rivers had been circulating since at least 1902 and a 1924 expedition even managed to capture a specimen in Baghdad. The capture of a shark in Baghdad must have been absolutely astonishing since Baghdad is over 520 miles up the Tigris River. The specimen was decapitated and the head eventually made its way to the Natural History Museum in London where it is still housed today.
More modern accounts are also available. In 1953, a man lost an arm when he was attacked by a gray-colored shark estimated to be 1.5 meters in length while he was swimming in the Karun River near Ahvaz. A similar incident occurred in the same river in 1954 when a man was killed on the same river, but several miles deeper inland near Shushtar. Such records of shark attacks continue through 1985 and one study published in 1988 set the grand total of these shark incidents to 34 serious attacks and 17 fatalities with the authors suggesting that many more minor encounters have gone undocumented.
Unfortunately, almost all historical data on the presence of Bull sharks in the region are derived from attack reports and little to no research in terms of ecology appear to have been undertaken.
Sharks in the rivers today
Contemporary information on bull sharks in the rivers of Iraq and Iran appears to be very limited. It would appear that only two papers, on published in 2012 and the other in 2013, provide any semblance of a record that is accessible through western scientific databases. Attempts to search in both the Arabic and Persian languages also proved relatively uneventful, though searching Google utilizing the Arabic term for ‘shark’ (القرش) does provide a small collection of images depicting injuries sustained from shark attacks in the region. This lack of readily accessible information is, of course, understandable given the political instability of the region. Compounding the matter is an apparent culture of fear surrounding the presence of these predators. Consider this brief report of a bull shark captured by a fisherman in southern Iraq in 2012:
(Reuters) – A two-meter shark has been caught in a river in southern Iraq more than 200 km (160 miles) from the sea. Karim Hasan Thamir said he was fishing with his sons last week when they spotted a large fish thrashing about in his net. “I recognized the fish as a shark because I have seen one on a television program,” he told Reuters. The shark was pulled from the mouth of an irrigation canal that joins the Euphrates River. The Euphrates joins the Tigris River further east to form the Shatt al-Arab waterway which flows south past Basra into the Gulf.
Locals blamed the U.S. military for the shark’s presence. Tahseen Ali, a teacher, said there was a “75 percent chance” Americans had put the shark in the water. “This is very frightening for us. Our children always swim in the river and I believe that there are more sharks. I believe that America is behind this matter,” said fisherman Hatim Karim.
Regional academics like Dr. Mohamed Ajah, assistant dean of the college of science at Thi Qar University in Nassiriya, offer a more measured view and suggest that while the shark’s presence is unusual given that barriers in the estuaries usually prevent such movement, the presence of this animal was hardly part of U.S. military strategy.
While it is clear that there is a continued interest in studying elasmobranchs in Iraq and Iran (as suggested by surveys like one conducted by A.H. Ali of the University of Basrah in 2013) it is unlikely that the scientific community will be afforded more insight until the region once again experiences some measure of sustained sociopolitical stability and focus can be shifted toward scientific exploration.
Acknowledgment: Massive thanks to Yolande Ferreira and the NHM Image Resources team for their efforts in securing the bull shark (C. leucas) specimen photographs used in this post.
References and Further Reading
- Ali, A. H., Sultan, A. W. A., Alhello, A. A., Aribi, M. A., Al-Saad, H. T., Al-Zubaidy, A. B., … & Chihadeh, W. N. (2013). First record of six shark species in the territorial marine waters of Iraq with a review of cartilaginous fishes of Iraq.
- Coadt, B.W., and Frough P. “Shark attacks in the rivers of southern Iran.” Environmental biology of fishes 23.1-2 (1988): 131-134.
- Coadt, B. W., & Al-Hassan, L. A. (1989). Freshwater shark attacks at Basrah, Iraq. Zoology in the Middle East, 3(1), 49-54.
- Cocking, G. Personal Accounts by Members of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service and Territorial Nursing Service. The National Archives WO222/189, Item 1D, India to Iraq and Persia. Link: http://bit.ly/1BPQijW
- Hunt, R. S. (1951). The sharks of Ahwaz. Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps, 97(2), 79-85.
- Moore, A. B. (2012). Elasmobranchs of the Persian (Arabian) Gulf: ecology, human aspects and research priorities for their improved management.Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries, 22(1), 35-61.
- Iraqi fisherman nets shark 160 miles from sea – Reuters, 2012