Middle East RFE

Dear All,
Looks like I might be able to do a Jon Hall-style quick trip to Syria (Aleppo area), Iraq (SE part, including the marshes and the western desert), Libya (Cyrenaica), and possibly Bahrain in late June. I’d appreciate wildlife-finding tips for any of those places. (Yes, I know, summer there sucks, but 2021 is reportedly very good for rodents in Syria and perhaps also in Iraq so far, so I hope there will still be something running around.)


  • tomeslice

    You’re gonna hate me for this response, but I feel obligated…
    Here’s my tip:
    Well – Syria and Iraq.
    Lybia – I’m not sure what’s going on there nowadays, and Bahrain is ok.

    Sorry Vladimir.. I know you’re not here to ask advice for your safety, but being from Israel and hearing bout the conflict in Syria on almost a daily basis makes me not want anyone I know to go there… because the risk of death seems much more feasible than in most places.

    Otherwise, good luck, and if you do go, I hope you find your rodent.

    • Vladimir Dinets

      Thank you for your concern! I heard the same things about Israel when I first went there (in 1993, during the first intifada) ๐Ÿ™‚ I am going to relatively safe parts of every country, have reliable friends there, and will be using appropriate documents. Of course, when I was younger, I would probably have hitchhiked all over those countries, but having two children has made me very cautious.

      • tomeslice

        Just to put it in perspective:
        Between the years of 1993 (Oslo agreement) to 1999, approx. 300 Israeli civilians died in terrorist attacks. This was indeed the worst time period for security in Israel.

        Since 2018, approx. 11,700 civilians died in Syria… The population in Syria is only about twice-thrice that of Israel so I think on average it can be considered a much more dangerous place.
        Also, where do you land, and how do you get to those relatively safe places.. it sounds like if someone you come across doesnโ€™t like your paperwork you can just get shot.
        Iโ€™ve heard of stuff like that happening (to people I know) in Mexico, which is considered less dangerous than Syria. So if the goal is to see both the mammals and your children, you may want to wait just 1-2 more years until things calm down just a little more.
        But again, if you go, and if you donโ€™t die, it will for sure make for an interesting report. ๐Ÿ™‚


          Yes, but there was a war and now it’s pretty much over. Of course, there is always some risk, but I’ve been to much worse places. If we ever meet in person, remind me to tell you the story of me being executed by a firing squad ๐Ÿ™‚

          • tomeslice

            My god…
            Hopefully we do meet in person, and when it happens – I will definitely remind you! :-O


            Might happen next year. We were planning to go to Israel this spring, but it’s just too much hassle at the moment. For now, I hope my ME trip report will be the most boring one ever ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Mattia from Italy

    Syria, Iraq and Lybia? You are totally crazy, Vladimir! ๐Ÿ˜€

    I can say, about Lybia, that outside Tripoli and Bengasi is anarchy and 100% dangerous.

    • Vladimir Dinets

      Depends on who you talk to. People living in Tripoli say it’s Cyrenaica that’s in total bloody chaos, while my friend living in Cyrenaica says it’s Tripolitania where you can get eaten alive in the street ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Mattia from Italy

        No place in Lybia, outside the big towns during daylight, is safe. The most dangerous are actually the Sirte area, the Fezzan and, above all, the coastal highway from Tunisia to Egyptian border. Various illegal checkpoints of armed gangs.

  • Jon Hall

    Have you joined the US Special Forces?


    The US Mammalwatching Corps, that is.

  • Lennartv

    I’m sure you’ll get out alive and Vladimir has experienced stuff that most of us would need 10 lives to experience, but personally I would be most worried to maybe end up on some kind of terrorist watch list if you travel to Syria. I know in my country they are working on a law that makes staying in an area that is considered controlled by terrorists already a criminal offense. Even journalists and aid workers have to be quite careful when they go to these area’s. Usually governments aren’t too picky in narrowing down the precise area as well… I would definitely check if there is any kind of risk for you in that department. As far as I know the US is also not the most lenient government if you are talking about any kinds of terrorist related matters. It might also make travelling in the future more difficult for you. But the choice is up to you :).

    • Vladimir Dinets

      The way it works in the US, visiting certain countries (including some official US allies such as Pakistan, although we all know what kind of ally it really is) causes you problems only as long as you have their stamps in your US passport. I learned my lesson after visiting Pakistan many years ago, and will not have any such stamps again ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Lennartv

        Yes, that is definitely a smart thing to do! Someone I know missed his next flight (transfer in the US) because he did some volunteering in Iraq years ago, they wanted to know all about that!

  • Eran Tomer


    I have read some of your writings over the years and salute your courage, skills and spirit of exploration. But with much respect, I exhort you to avoid Libya, Syria and Iraq.

    One might visit these and return safely but it would be a gamble. You have had some hair-raising adventures previously but if you continue taking such risks the odds may well catch up with you. Statistically: if a single adventure has a 50% chance of ending badly, 7 such adventures have a 99% chance of a tragedy. If a single adventure has only a 25% chance of ending badly, 17 such adventures have a 99% chance of a tragedy.

    Libya’s situation is unstable and heating up with increasing Turkish intervention. Offensives may erupt unpredictably.

    Hostilities continue actively in Syria. The Aleppo area is decidedly unsafe – right where several combatants clash and close to Idlib, where the civil war still rages. The Syrian army, Turkey, Kurdish forces, Russia, the U. S., Iran, Israel, several large paramilitaries and terror organizations all operate in Syria continuously. Effectively the government doesn’t control much of the country and events therein.

    Iraq’s government is frail and ineffectual. Multiple militias and governments vie for influence there, confrontations flare, tensions are high and can boil over easily. The southwestern area is close to the Saudi border and not far from Iran, a recipe for trouble. (Iran wields considerably power in Iraq and operates against Saudi Arabia).

    Small-scale violence that doesn’t make the news occurs in all three countries. Law enforcement is dicey. More seriously, these countries’ situations are volatile and major fighting could erupt easily, without warning. This occurs periodically, especially in Syria.

    I agree with Tomer that Libya, Syria and Iraq are incomparable to Israel during troubled times. A stable, prosperous Western country suffering a bout of terror attacks is dissimilar to countries with years-long civil wars, foreign military interventions, proxy conflicts, ineffective governance and terrorist militias controlling parts of the territories.

    Local friends can help much but neither they nor their governments control dangerous events there. Additional risk factors: being and looking like a foreigner, roaming at night (especially), exploring in the countryside (let alone caves, marshes, wadis etc.) and carrying optics, cameras, spotlights, scopes, traps, GPS receivers and other `suspicious’ gear.

    Moreover, nature conservation had been nearly nonexistent in the said countries before the wars. Larger mammals had been wiped out. Wildlife’s state following years of warfare, lawlessness, arms proliferation and hunger must be disastrous. Probably only small mammals survive and viewing or trapping them would be highly risky.

    Bottom line: there is no safe way to do something inherently dangerous. It is tantamount to approaching a large carnivore closely on foot: some strategies are safe*r* than others but none are safe.

    For a quick mammal-watching trip, why Libya, Syria and Iraq of all places ? These are some of the world’s most perilous areas nowadays, so why gamble with one’s life ? Many other destinations offer a higher mammal diversity and far greater safety, combined with exciting exploration and reasonable costs.

    Please be careful Vladimir, we value you !

    – Eran Tomer

  • Eran Tomer

    Forgot one more danger – land mines, at times in unexpected places. These have killed scientists and naturalists before. Another reason to avoid war zones past and present.

  • Vladimir Dinets

    Eran and Mattia, thank you for your concern. I didn’t mean to say Israel was as dangerous as Syria. What I meant was that any country seems more dangerous than it is if you just look at media accounts. I am not going to Sirte, Fezzan (which, by the way, will be very much worth exploring once/if things settle down), Libyan coast, Idlib, Baghdad, or even Aleppo City. There are currently NGOs and Western zoologists working in SE Iraq and there’s been no serious security problems, it’s a very different place from Sunni Iraq. As for the proximity to Iran and Saudi Arabia, I’m planning to visit those in the next few years, so better to get used to it ๐Ÿ™‚

    I would never go on a trip with a 50% chance of getting killed or taken hostage. It’s nowhere near that dangerous. Of course, there are many places with more interesting mammals, but this year I have a unique chance to visit these three countries basically for free (I am actually getting paid for the Iraq part) and with reliable local contacts; such an opportunity might never happen again. I’d rather spend a year exploring New Guinea, but I don’t have time and money for that.

    I am not taking any gear other than an old cell phone, a cheap headlamp and a tiny bat detector. My friends will provide transportation (including a boat for the marshes). Landmines are an issue but all minefields are currently signposted, at least in places I’ll be visiting. It is very much possible that things will change before June and I’ll have to cancel parts of the trip or even all of it, but right now the situation seems good enough.

    The last dangerous countries I visited were Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2004 and Somalia in 2005. In each case, things only got worse afterwards and I wouldn’t be able to do it if I didn’t take the risk when I did. So if there is an opportunity, I’ll use it.

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