ALEY, Lebanon: When a man shot dead a wild hyena in early January he was hailed as a hero on national television. But for conservationists this is all the more reason to educate the public about these gentle and endangered creatures.
“People think that anyone who kills a wild animal is a hero. This week someone killed a hyena in Adloun, and the media treats him as a hero. We think these animals should be protected,” says Mounir Abi Said, founder of Animal Encounter, a wildlife visiting center just east of Beirut that the university professor and researcher founded in 1993.
Twenty years on he is just as determined as he was then to educate and raise awareness about the importance of protecting wild animals, which he believes are being lost to ignorance at an alarming rate.
“We always need to refresh people’s memories, and we always have to create awareness,” he says at the small reserve in the scenic mountain town, where he has just given schoolchildren a guided tour and lesson on their country’s wildlife, most of which they are unlikely to see outside of captivity.
Enclosed in cages and given makeshift replicas of their native environments – mud for the wild pigs, grass and grains for the deer, gazelles and wild fowl, and meat and fruit for the hyenas – these animals serve as a reminder of the wildlife that once thrived in Lebanon and what stands to be lost if people do not change their attitudes toward their natural environment. Gazelles, the deer-like creatures that have long been a symbol of the Middle East and were hunted to extinction in Lebanon decades ago, sit – both protected and captive – behind bars.
If the public doesn’t become more educated about the importance of hyenas, they stand to suffer the same fate, fears Said, who predicts that if Lebanon continues its rate of reckless hunting and rapid urbanization, the animals could be wiped out within the next 20 years. It is unclear how many hyenas are left in Lebanon, but they are known to inhabit all of the qadas except for Beirut.
Laws that could protect hyenas are vague and poorly enforced, such as Lebanon’s anti-hunting bill which has existed since the mid-1990s, forbidding any form of the activity. Many people, including some conservationists, would like to see the law amended to allow regulated hunting, which they believe would educate hunters about their country’s different species, including which ones are most endangered. A government decree passed in 2004 forbids the captivity of wild animals in Lebanon. Last year, in addition to being hunted, several of Lebanon’s striped hyenas died in cages, as their captors did not know how to care for them.
Today, there is a draft law that has been put forth for the comprehensive protection of animals in Lebanon, whose articles include regulations for keeping wild animals, requirements for transportation and law enforcement.
The striped hyena, a seldom-spotted furry animal native to Lebanon which has similar hunting behavior to a dog and purrs like a cat, somehow never made it into the hearts of most people. Instead, mythology surrounding them, passed on from one generation to the next, has given them a reputation as dangerous – even evil – pests. Depending on the legend, hyenas are said to raid graves, steal children and livestock, and have at times been used in witchcraft. There is also a stigma surrounding the “false penis” of the female spotted hyena, a breed that doesn’t exist in Lebanon.
In fact, say experts, the animal is far from dangerous and actually benefits the entire eco-system – including humans – by eating garbage, old bones and seeds, thereby naturally composting the soil. They can also help in the prevention of contagious illnesses, such as bird flu, by eating the decomposing bodies of the infected animals.
Some say they should also be protected for their own sake.
The value of an animal is enough. They’re worth protecting because they’re a fascinating creature,” says Jason Mier, executive director at Animals Lebanon, who emphasizes that hyenas are no doubt beneficial to humans, with their diet of animal carcass, much of which comes from people’s garbage. “We shouldn’t have to link [their protection] to the benefit of people.”
He adds, “I would be extremely sad if it became extinct, and if I had a kid who didn’t have the chance to see them.”