Al-MARJ, Lebanon: “Put the safety on until the gun is in the right position,” Khaled Saleh tells his niece Dareen Saleh as she positions her Maxim, a wide 12mm automatic rifle made in Turkey, just below her collar bone.
She heeds his advice as she takes aim at a plastic bottle in the middle of a vast field in the small town of al-Marj in the heart of the Bekaa Valley. “Hold it firm to resist the pressure, and make sure you resist with both your hands and your shoulders ... and then unleash!” Dareen’s uncle continues. She lets off three shots, one after the other, and stumbles from the recoil.
“That was fun!” she says as the smoke from the gun clears.
This is a common scene in the Bekaa Valley, where hunting is deeply entrenched in the culture. Most hunters learn from their parents when they are as young as 10, with smaller rifles.
“Of course, children learn from a young age how to hunt,” said Muhidden Saleh, Dureen’s father, adding that it was one of the essentials of growing up, along with learning how to “throw, swim and ride a horse.”
And it’s not just in the Bekaa: People from all over the country are enjoying this national pastime – in spite of the fact that it has been banned for the past 20 years.
In 1995, a law was passed that banned hunting altogether. This law was modified in 2004, under then-President Emile Lahoud, to regulate hunting to specific seasons of the year, and then only with official hunting licenses.
This law transferred responsibility for hunting from the Agriculture Ministry to the Environment Ministry and established the Higher Council for Hunting in Lebanon, headed by the environment minister, which is tasked with implementing the law. However, 10 years later, implementation decrees have yet to be issued, meaning the ministry cannot declare an official hunting season and it is still banned.
Despite this, hunting remains a popular pastime, and stores selling rifles are common. During the bird migration season, generally from mid-September to the end of January, hunters flock to rural areas around the country.
“They take all the taxes from weapons traders and they ban hunting? It doesn’t make any sense,” said Imad Ofeich, owner of Ofeich, a hunting store in Chtaura.
Even experienced hunters complain that this lack of regulation has caused chaos and confusion, and as a result, many untrained hunters set out with serious firearms and no experience.
Others have very different reasons for objecting to the current situation. According to the umbrella conservation group BirdLife International, over 2 million birds fly through the Red Sea-Rift valley migration path annually, migrating from wintering grounds in Africa to breeding grounds in Europe and Central Asia.
Many of these birds, including storks, eagles and falcons, which are protected in other countries, are hunted indiscriminately as they pass through Lebanon.
This has raised concern in other countries that work to protect these birds and led to Polish naturalists starting an educational campaign in Lebanon to help protect the stork, its national bird, earlier this year.
“We don’t have any specific numbers [of migratory birds hunted in Lebanon], but you can see from Facebook that it’s a lot,” said BirdLife’s Hussein al-Kisswani.
Facebook is filled with pictures of hunters of all ages showing off their catches. Many of these trophy posts feature native skylarks and sparrows, relatively common small birds, but others show slain hawks, eagles, falcons and storks.
The “STOP Hunting Crimes in Lebanon” Facebook page has begun documenting these photos, as well as videos that show people shooting down birds with army-grade weapons such as Kalashnikovs.
That the page has accumulated 16,000 likes indicates there is a growing concern among the general population for the protection of birds and wildlife in Lebanon.
In response to this growing concern, the Environment Ministry recently issued several decrees that will allow for the issuance of hunting licenses, although it has yet to declare an official hunting season.
Hunters will now have pass tests administered by designated country clubs that will assess their knowledge of birds – including which birds can and cannot be hunted – as well as their vision, hearing and shooting ability. To complete the shooting component of the test, the hunter will need to be licensed to carry a hunting rifle. Some 500 police officers have also been trained to enforce the new decrees.
“Within the hunting season, the control mechanism [will be in place],” said Salam Hamadeh, the project manager of MSB, adding that all the policemen charged with enforcing the law had also undergone species identification training.
The new decrees were the fruits of the Migratory Soaring Birds Project, a three-year, $1.35 million project funded by the United Nations Development Program, which saw the Environment Ministry collaborate with BirdLife International and the Global Environment Facility to assess the situation in Lebanon relating to migratory birds.
The Environment Ministry was not available to comment on when hunting season would be announced, or the reasons for the delay following the issuance of the decrees
Hunting-store proprietor Ofeich is not convinced that the state is serious about regulating hunting.
“They say this every year,” Ofeich complained. “They could send 60,000 officers into the Bekaa and it wouldn’t stop people hunting.”
Paul Abi Rashid, the president of the environmental umbrella group Lebanon EcoMovement, said that it was too late in the year to issue licenses in time for hunting season.
“For sure they won’t have time,” he said. “Who will profit from this illegal hunting? Those who sell guns and weapons, because when you have open and illegal hunting, they shoot whatever they want.”
Many stakeholders believe that the number of hunters has drastically gone up since the ban, as has the price of guns, with weapons and ammunition dealers poised to reap in the profits.
“The tradespeople benefit a lot, as they can sell the most bullets,” said Ali Shaheen, a farmer in al-Marj who has been hunting for 50 years.
Hussein Fayad, the secretary of Ammunition Traders for Hunting Weapons, denied that hunting stores benefitted from unregulated hunting.
“Professionals such as doctors, engineers and judges – they don’t hunt anymore,” he said, suggesting that wealthy, experienced hunters were better for business.
It seems that environmentalists, hunters and most gun and ammunition dealers agree that hunting would be safer and more sustainable if the hunting law were enforced.
“The government can make money from issuing the license, hunters can be protected from inexperienced hunters and we can sell more,” Ofeich said. “We all benefit!”