CHOUF NATURE RESERVE, Lebanon: Lebanon is located in one of the world’s most important corridors for bird migration, yet every year many fowl are killed en route by recreational hunters who are either unaware of or indifferent to the country’s poorly enforced hunting ban.
“Most of the hunters don’t know the species very well,” says Nizar Hani, director of the Chouf Cedar Reserve. “And here in Lebanon there’s no monitoring, except for at the reserve, which is 5 percent of the country’s landmass. It’s big, but it’s not big enough.”
He believes that people do believe that wildlife should be preserved, “but they still hunt.”
Hunting has been banned in Lebanon since the mid-1990s, but one would hardly know this by the amount of recreational hunting that takes place throughout the year, mainly in the Bekaa Valley and in the north. Throughout the year, hunters drive into the mountains with their 4-wheel drives, often shooting whatever they see.
Lebanon’s diverse topography, including mountains, wetlands and a semi-arid region, makes it an attractive place for a variety of birds. The country is home to about 400 species, including 260 migratory birds. Every year, millions of birds pass through the area, sometimes to reproduce.
At least 15 of these species are threatened with extinction, including the pygmy cormorant, which is rapidly losing its breeding ground thanks to over-development and over-hunting.
“Hunting in Lebanon is destructive, especially under a long-term ban with no application of decrees or enforcement of laws. Many birds are in decline in Lebanon. These are not limited to threatened species but cover also many common bird species,” says Ghassan Jaradi, professor of ornithology at Lebanese University, who began studying Lebanon’s bird populations in the early 1990s.
He adds that it is important to factor in other causes for the loss of wildlife loss, particularly birds, such as hunting in neighboring countries, climate change and forest fires.
Omar Baroudi, a professor at Lebanese University who has hunted for years in the mountains of Lebanon and Syria (where hunting is also banned), argues that hunting should be legalized and regulated. He also believes that if more people were in the habit of only killing for food, fewer animals would be killed, and hunting would be less destructive.
“I eat what I hunt. If I don’t eat it, then I don’t kill it. That’s haram,” he says. “They shouldn’t legalize it arbitrarily. There should be hunting seasons, and people should learn about the different birds so they don’t kill endangered birds – like [laws] in other countries.”
Environmentalists expressed outrage in April this year when a man who had killed dozens of migratory storks in north Lebanon posted pictures on Facebook of himself holding his dead prey dangling by the legs. Activists condemned the act as a massacre.
It’s unclear who benefits from the hunting ban, or why it was introduced in the first place. A 2004 law introduced hunting regulations, including permitting the hunting of game species, but was never activated after being ratified by Parliament.
Environmentalists, hunters and even gun sellers – who sell hunting rifles legally despite the hunting ban, are all in favor of a law to regulate hunting.
Joe Debs, the owner of a gun and sporting goods store in Mar Mikhail, says that his business dropped by 50 percent after the hunting ban was adopted 15 years ago. His customers gradually returned, but he’s yet to reach his former level of business. The ban made it more difficult for gun salesmen to import weapons, leading many to re-import guns from Cyprus at a higher price.
Although he maneuvers around the current restrictions he says, “I don’t feel comfortable because of the ban” because he knows his buyers are likely using the rifles for illegal activity.
Environmentalists say they have similar reasons for wanting to modify the existing law.
Lebanon’s Green Party supports a reversal of the ban, not because it supports the activity, but because many experts believe that the country’s lack of regulations lead to reckless hunting, and organizing it would limit the amount of wildlife hunted.
“We want to bring back the old [pre-1996] hunting law so that it can be organized. This would control the quantity of birds hunted,” says party member Hanady Assaf, who hunted as a child and whose family still hunts. “The current law has proved to be ineffective because hunting is an old and traditional hobby.”
Environment Minister Nazem Khoury said after a meeting with ministry officials Tuesday that he expected a new hunting law to be adopted in under two months.
Assaf says a new law would be one step toward raising awareness of how to hunt in moderation while still preserving the different species. She notes that at present it’s even difficult to fully monitor Lebanon’s protected areas.
LU’s Jaradi believes hunting must move higher up the political agenda.
“If we continue giving wildlife the last priority at the political and legislative levels, Lebanon will then be considered a country of bird massacres,” he says. “The government should … allow regulated and controlled hunting seasons.”
For now, until new legislation is passed, Jaradi says the best solution is education so as to raise awareness of the importance of respecting wildlife.
“Increase in awareness is an increase of knowledge and thus an increase of bird protection,” he says. “This produces positive results. But the most effective results are obtained after longer time.”
This article was amended on Sept. 16 to correct the caption. The bird in the picture is a Hoopoe bird and not, as originally stated, a jaybird.