The Great Wilderness

CHANGE IS NEEDED: Dr. Munir Abu Saeed helps people understand the important role of wild animals in the ecosystem, and says this has helped change the way many people think of those creatures. Students and activists volunteer each year to help care for the wild animals at Dr. Abu Saeed’s shelter for wildlife.

Wildlife in Lebanon suffers from excessive hunting and human ignorance

Pictures and story by Mostapha Raad

Baloo the Syrian brown bear, does not know if it had any relatives living in the Lebanese wilderness. In fact, Baloo, 18, and his wife Teddy, 13, have been living alone for over a decade now, in a small house fenced with iron bars. But, despite living together for over 10 years, Baloo and Teddy have failed to produce an offspring of their own, and they are believed to be the last of their kind in the Levant at present.

The Syrian bear, or Ursus Arctos Syriacus, which naturally exists in the Middle East and the Caucasus regions, is the smaller subspecies of the brown bear, and have made shy appearances in the past across Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkmenistan, Iraq, Iran and Turkey.

The species in Lebanon was discovered in 1828, dwelling inside the Makmal Mountain’s forests in the northern district of Becharri, much before the human species took over its habitat and constructed a cement jungle.

It is worth noting that the last sighting of a Syrian brown bear in Lebanon was back in 1958.

Teddy and Baloo were brought in to their current shelter for animals by Dr. Munir Abu Saeed, after finding them at one of the roaming circuses.

At the sanctuary, the two bears, whose species is currently flagged red on the endangered animals list with the possibility of going extinct in the near future, much like it did in Lebanon, are safe from the rapid changes to the outside environment.

The doctor has also managed to shelter over 35 different species of wild and endangered animals at his sanctuary in the mountainous area of Aley, in Lebanon, over the past few decades, including stripped hyenas, jackals, wild cats, foxes, eagles and antelopes, most of which he found hurt or orphaned.

“They have the right to exist and have a chance to live as long as possible away from the hunters’ rifles,” Dr. Abu Saeed tells Newsweek Middle East.

The country currently lacks adequate wildlife centers that can care for injured or sick wild animals. And Dr. Abu Saeed, who is also an activist, wishes he could release the animals back into the wilderness, but he knows that his dream is far from materializing. He is thus reluctant to set them free, knowing that hunters will be waiting to shoot them dead.

According to him, the “lack of proper education among the Lebanese about Lebanon’s wildlife and the important role played by each of the animals,” as well the excessive love to hunt, threatens the wellbeing of wild animals, which are being “exterminated” in the country.

Dr. Abu Saeed has also dedicated part of his life to touring the black market to buy back wild animals, which are doomed to death at the hands of humans.

He started his pro-wildlife activism back in 1993 when he and his wife Diana embarked on a mission to protect wild animals and provide them with shelter in their backyard in Aley, in collaboration with the Green Line Committee. The Lebanese couple thought their work would come to an end when wildlife reserves were adjoined to the Environment Ministry in 1995, and consequently wild animals would be protected from human greed.

But the cement jungle seems to be expanding further and the natural habitat of many of Lebanon’s wild animals are at risk.

The most recent case is the continued building on Lebanese shorelines, thought to be public lands, which has destroyed the natural habitat of many marine animals, and the government is yet to intervene; the environment ministry, as many activists say, has turned a blind eye to the illegitimate trespassing of these habitats, as is occurring today.

Why do people fear wildlife?
Those who work in the environmental field are aware of the amount of unjust and unrealistic presumptions about many of the wild animals which exist today.

Most wild animals are beneficial for the environment, but due to myths and folktales, those animals have turned into harmful creatures in the eyes of uneducated humans.

Take the bat for example, says Dr. Abu Saeed. “From stories of them sucking blood like vampires, to biting off people’s eyes, all of this is untrue as the bat has an important role in the ecosystem. It eliminates harmful insects, up to 3,000 per night, and many bat species help pollinate fruits.”

In that sense, bats help farmers, and they are the only mammals who can fly.

Out of 90 bat species in the world, 20 of those species dwell in Lebanon, but thanks to humans, their habitats, such as caves, are being burned down, and many are falling to poison and chemicals which humans spray across their fields.

Another phobia in Lebanon is the fear induced by hyenas.

Many Lebanese hunters brag about shooting hyenas and strapping them to the hood of their cars as if they have saved entire villages from the evils of this wild creature.

Folktales in Lebanon do not help this misunderstood wild animal either, as they relay news of it enchanting humans and livestock back into its lair to eat them.

The striped hyena, or Hyaena Hyaena Syriaca, lives on coastal areas in Lebanon as well as the mountainous areas, but what they do in folktales is far from being true in reality.

In fact, striped hyenas “are known to be the sweepers of the wilderness, more like garbage men. They eat dead carcasses and by that prevent the spread of maggots, harmful insects and stinky odors,” explains Dr. Abu Saeed.

“In that fashion, they actually help our environment, and us, stay healthy via the job God has created it for.”

What’s the cost?
Caring for wild animals demands large sums of money, which exceeds $5,000 per month, taking into account the food, cleaning and medical checkups and medication provided.

Dr. Abu Saeed’s wildlife shelter, which is frequented by 30,000 visitors a year, is somehow self-funded thanks to donations from schools, professors and activists, but that is not enough.

He adds that he is aided by volunteers, whose numbers are increasing year on year, thanks to the shelter which has helped change the mentality of school and university students when it comes to the reality of Lebanon’s wild animals.

Lebanon needs more zoologists, veterinarians, ethologists and specialists in animal bioscience, says Dr. Abu Saeed, adding that to have a healthy ecosystem, we need to respect God’s creatures.

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