*Contains graphic images*
Photos of Iraqi border guards killing a rare Syrian brown bear while it was sleeping have gone viral on social media, prompting widespread outrage.
The bear, considered an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) was killed in the border area between Iraq and Syria, having fled the fighting in the country and headed north to look for a place to hibernate for the winter.
Last week, local news agencies released photos of Iraqi guards smiling next to the bear's dead carcass, having killed it after coming across it sleeping. Activists added that based on the photos, the bear was shot at point blank range and had been killed despite not posing any threat to the Iraqi soldiers.
While many breeds of bears in the region are a mix of Syrian and Eurasian species, the Syrian brown bear is an original breed. Indigenous to the Middle East, the bear has already become extinct in Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan, with the remaining population surviving in the region between Turkey, Iraq and Iran.
In Syria, sightings of the bear are rare; the last was seen in 2004 by Syrian researcher Issam Hajjar. In 1969 the Syrian government banned hunting of the animal in an effort to protect the remaining population. The Syrian variety is one of the smallest species of bear, reaching only 150 centimetres in length.
The photos of the killing were met with protest online, with many mourning the loss of an animal that was needlessly killed.
"He had entered into a state of hibernation before the soldiers found him asleep and instead of feeding him, taking care of him and providing him shelter, they killed him in cold blood," one user commented.
Activists called on wildlife and biodiversity organisations, particularly the IUCN, to ensure other bears are protected from all parties to the conflict.
This is not the first time animals have suffered as a result of the war in Syria. In 2017, three lions, two tigers, two hyenas and two bears were transferred to animal facilities in Turkey's Bursa province, after residents were forced to abandon Syria's Aleppo zoo when fleeing government bombardment.
In Iraq, several animals also died in Mosul during the battle against Daesh militants. Last year, international animal welfare charity Four Paws coordinated a rescue mission to transfer the last remaining animals, a lion and a bear, from the Montazah Al-Morour Zoo to Jordan.