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Hana Raza: Making Sanctuary for All

Once there was a girl named Hana Raza who wouldn’t let war or prejudice keep her from helping endangered species. Hana fights hard to preserve Iraq’s natural environment, and speaks out for those who don’t have a voice.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Joy Smith with sound design and mixing by Reel Audiobooks. It was written by Gina Gotstill and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Nourhan Magdi. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!


Deep in the stunning Zagros mountains of Western Asia, there once were dense oak forests filled with exotic animals. Brown bears, wild goats, and striped hyenas roamed free. Squirrels with deep red tails climbed the tallest trees and buried acorns underground; while eagles, bustards, and vultures soared overhead. 

But after years of war and habitat destruction, the mountains became eerily quiet. There were only the echoes of all that had been lost. Where did all of the animals go? Many people believed they were gone forever. 

Until one young woman decided she was going to do everything she could to find them. Her name was Hana Raza.

I’m Nourhan Magdi. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.

A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.

On this episode, Hana Raza, conservationist, animal ally, and activist for peace.

Hana grew up in part of the Zagros Mountains where Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria meet, known as Kurdistan. Her parents were “Freedom Fighters.” They were fighting to keep the part of the Zagros Mountains where they lived independent from other countries.

Hana faced war and conflict her whole life. In 1987, when she was just a few months old, soldiers blasted her neighborhood with chemical weapons. Hana and her family were badly hurt. But they were able to flee into the mountains where they recovered. From that day on, Hana grew up loving and appreciating this incredible landscape. 

As she got older, Hana learned about what life was like before wars destroyed her land. Animals of every size had grazed on shrubs and evergreen leaves along the steep rocks. Hana was especially curious about the region’s most majestic animal – the Persian leopard. She heard it was a large, elegant animal — golden brown and black, with speckles all over, and a long, muscular tail. The Persian leopard was very important to the land because as the top of the food chain, it kept the ecosystem running smoothly. But after four decades of war in Iraq, no one had seen any Persian leopards around Hana’s home for many years. 

Hana couldn’t stand the thought that Persian leopards might be gone forever. In many ways, Persian leopards were like her people — searching for a place in the mountains where they could live peacefully. Hana needed to find these leopards and make sure they were safe. She dreamed of creating a sacred space in the mountains where all animals could exist in harmony. 

When she was twenty-two, Hana joined Nature Iraq – a conservation group that protects and restores Iraq’s wildlife. Nature Iraq works with villagers and local police to access remote rivers and rocky cliffs, and document the plants and animals they see. 

For many years, people in this region struggled to find enough food and keep their families safe from war. Making the environment a priority was something new to them. But, just like Hana, Nature Iraq saw how everyone and everything is interconnected. They were determined to help all creatures living there.

Hana knew in order to protect the Persian leopard, she had to find one first. Again, people told her they were long gone. No one believed she would succeed. But she thought, The Persian leopard is too strong. It can survive the wars. 

She set up camera traps in the wilderness, hoping to catch a picture of these missing creatures. Then, she and some fellow conservationists hiked up the steep, rocky paths, searching for pawprints, or any signs of animal life. They moved through small villages and asked local people what they had seen and which animals were most common. Then, they set up their camps for the night. Hana could feel the eyes of the villagers on her. What was this unmarried woman doing here, staying in camps with men? 

This was not a normal job for a woman in this part of the world. Hana knew people would talk about her and wonder how long she’d last. But Hana refused to give up. The mountains had saved her family. Now, she was going to save the mountains.

About two years into her work with Nature Iraq, Hana spoke to a forest police officer who said he knew of a trail where large mammals roamed.

Let’s go! thought Hana.

But of course, they couldn’t stay there because these animals avoided humans. So, with the officer’s help, Hana set up automatic cameras and hid them in the brush and rocks on the mountain. The cameras would take pictures any time an animal walked by. Hana left them there for two months, hoping they could get footage of a leopard.

Then, the big day came. Hana was so excited when it was time to retrieve the cameras and look through all the images they’d captured. There were jackals, foxes, wolves, wild cats, wild boars, Indian crested porcupines. But no leopards. Her team scrolled through image after image, scanning for even the faintest spots or slip of a tail. Until…


Hana was in a taxi on her way home from work, when her phone rang.

There’s a leopard in the camera! her colleague yelled. 

They’d done it! They’d proven to the world that the Persian leopard still lived in the Kurdistan mountains. And it had a chance of making a comeback. It was more than just those leopards who were alive though. It was the hope that life could return — that nature could be a source of peace and that all animals could thrive once again. 

That day in 2011 was really just the beginning for Hana. Since then, she has continued to track the Persian leopard population and its habitat. She’s won the Future for Nature Award and was named one of the fifty people changing this world by the Explorers Club. She even started her own organization called Leopards Beyond Borders. 

Many people now recognize how important Hana’s work is to the world. Together with other environmental groups, she is planning a Peace Park that will stretch across Iraq and Iran. Here, the natural world will be free from any hunting, deforestation or fighting. The people of the region will benefit too! Conservation projects in the Peace Park will provide new jobs and a new way to live.

It may take a long time to build, but Hana believes in her mission. She knows there are powerful connections between humans, animals and the natural world. And peace is possible for all living beings.

She’s also really eager to see her first Persian leopard in person. But again, it might take a while for that to happen.

“I believe in patience,” Hana says. “Everything comes at the right time.”

Whether she’s climbing craggy mountains or searching through a camera lens, Hana is a true trailblazer. She is spreading her love of this world to all creatures great and small — saving this planet one pawprint at a time.


This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.

This episode was narrated by ME, Nourhan Magdi. It was produced and directed by Joy Smith, with sound design and mixing by Reel Audiobooks. It was written by Gina Gotsill and edited by Abby Sher. Fact checking by Joe Rhatigan. Joy Smith is the executive producer.

Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi.

A special thanks to the whole Rebel Girls team, who make this podcast possible!

Until next time, staaaay rebel!