ANSAR, Lebanon: For striped hyenas Rita and Sara, the journey from southern Lebanon to southern France last week took two days, but for Animals Lebanon, it had been nearly a year in the making.
Arriving at their new enclosure at the Tonga Terre d’Accueil wildlife sanctuary near Lyon, after a pit stop in Belgium (currently no French airports can accept the receipt of live animals) the animals completed a trip that had stretched nearly 4,000 kilometers.
For Rita, it was the first time the 5-year-old animal – halfway between a dog and a cat, according to veterinarian Dr. Jean-Christophe Gerard – had ever been outside her enclosure, an abandoned zoo not far from Nabatieh.
Two-year-old Sara had been kept at the Ansar zoo since January, after being rescued from a small cage no bigger than her body.
She had been held in the garden of a private owner, but due to the conditions in which she had been kept her whole life Sara was too timid and anxious to be kept in the same enclosure as Rita.
The zoo in Ansar is now all but empty – the area was bombed in the 2006 war – and the tourist attraction, which lies next to a similarly dilapidated amusement park, has been left to rust.
Animals Lebanon, which has also successfully rescued chimpanzees, lions and bears in recent years, has been in talks with the Agriculture Ministry for around a year to organize the emigration of the two female striped hyenas, a species indigenous to Lebanon.
They faced criticism from some quarters that the animals were not being released back into Lebanon, but as Rita and Sara had both been captured from the wild as cubs, they would likely now struggle to fend for themselves, and would be probably fall victim to hunting or capture once again.
Unlike the sub-Saharan spotted hyenas that hunt in packs, striped hyenas – found from Morocco to India – typically live on their own.
Introducing the creatures back into the wild is often very difficult as adequate space, not yet inhabited by other hyenas and yet suitable for the animal, must be found, said Jason Mier, executive director at Animals Lebanon.
“These animals are being moved for the benefit of the welfare of the two hyenas and the value to conservation,” wrote Nazem al-Khoury, Environment Minister, when he gave approval for the animals to be transferred.
Classified as near-threatened worldwide, Mier believes their status should be upgraded to endangered within Lebanon. While no data on animal numbers exists, it is thought that hunting and habitat destruction have led to a drastic reduction in their numbers over the last few decades.
Demonized in much ancient Arabic literature and art, hyenas have a stigma in the region, despite the fact they pose no threat to humans, surviving as they do from scraps and leftovers.
With the Agriculture Ministry approval granted, the microchips implanted and the rabies tests undertaken, the cages for the hyenas had to be constructed to meet world animal transportation standards.
For hyenas, which have the strongest jaws of any mammal relative to their size, this involves double doored-cages, made from one sheet of metal and weighing 180 kilograms each.
The cages were made in Ouzai at a cost of around $1,000 each, covered for by donations to Animals Lebanon.
Dr. Gerard, who had traveled to Lebanon last week from Tonga Terre d’Accueil to collect the animals, first had to shoot each animal with a tranquilizer dart.
After the drug kicked in and the hyena passed out, it was then loaded on to a stretcher and transferred to the metal cage, which had been lined with shredded paper.
Once the door was back on the cage a reversal drug was administered – as animals cannot fly with anesthetic in their systems – and the animals were driven to the airport. The cost of their flights to Brussels the next morning was paid for by Middle East Airlines. A colleague of Dr. Gerard’s met the trio in Brussels before driving them to the sanctuary near Lyon.
“This will be the first time Rita has ever left her enclosure, the first time they will see green grass, eat proper food and have access to vets,” said Maggie Sharaawi, one of the co-founders of Animals Lebanon.
Now in France, Rita and Sara are sharing an enclosure, which has both indoor and outdoor sections, but are separated by a fence allowing them to see and smell each other.
If it seems as if they are getting on, the fence will eventually be dismantled, at least at first for a trial period.
As Sara is such an anxious animal, Dr. Gerard was unsure as to how she would react to Rita: “I hope that when she is with the other one she will be more relaxed. And at the start I can give her medication to calm her down at first.”
Their departure from the abandoned zoo in Ansar leaves just one small aviary, with a selection of rather sad-looking doves, and a cage of seven friendly baboons, who are awaiting the correct documentation before Animals Lebanon can transfer them to an animals sanctuary in Jordan.
Mahmoud al-Hajj, manager at the Ansar zoo, denied any of the animals have ever been mistreated. Yet, he said, he was glad to see Rita and Sara start a new life in France: “I’m happy that they are going, because they are going to a better place.”