Lebanon activists raise alarm on animal trafficking
Lebanon's animal rights activists are fighting to bring to national attention what they say are rampant trafficking and abuse, problems that are far from priorities in a country plagued with turbulence.
While there are no official studies, activists estimate thousands -- if not tens of thousands -- of animals are smuggled into Lebanon annually, where they are sold, transferred to other destinations or subject to neglect or abuse.
"The situation is alarming," said Sevine Zahran of Lebanese non-governmental organisation Beirut for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (BETA).
"Part of the problem is that pet shops will sell customers whatever they demand, whether primates, crocodiles or even endangered parrots," Zahran said.
"But there are also major problems with legislation, government control and public awareness and making the problem worse is the fact that non-native species are now breeding in Lebanon, too."
Lebanon is among a handful of countries not signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and lacks domestic legislation on animal rights which would regulate and unequivocally criminalise animal abuse and trafficking.
And with its lax laws, porous borders and a large diaspora in Africa, Lebanon is a prime target for the smuggling and illegal trade of wildlife such as lions, chimpanzees and parrots, activists say.
"Smuggling is not exclusive to Lebanon, but the unique positioning of Lebanon certainly helps," said Jason Mier, executive director of Animals Lebanon, a local animal rights group that is spearheading the campaign to see animal welfare legislation adopted by parliament.
But in a country plagued with political troubles and conflict, animal rights are far from a national priority and public support for the cause is minimal at best.
"While there's definitely more attention now to the plight of animals and wildlife in Lebanon, there is still a long way to go," Mier said.
"What do you tell people who say human rights are ignored in Lebanon? All we can say is it's their planet too, which is our slogan," added Zahran.
Groups like BETA and Animals Lebanon regularly rescue animals ranging from cats and dogs to hyenas, baboons and lion cubs.
In recent years, the organisations have campaigned to shut down a string of zoos and circuses that had been mistreating animals, in a country with no sanctuaries and where zoos consist of rusting cages lined up in the blazing Mediterranean sun.
In pet shops dotting highways across the country, animals are left to languish in appalling conditions. 'The law should step in'
Baboons can be seen confined to filthy cages too small for them to move while near threatened African gray parrots are stored in containers with little to no ventilation.
In October, a lion cub grabbed headlines after he was spotted on a balcony in the chic central district of the capital Beirut.
"Leo is one of our luckier rescues as the people who had been keeping him as a pet were entirely cooperative
While Leo, whose rescue cost around 5,000 dollars, now lives in a sanctuary in Cape Town, a second cub is growing bigger and bigger in another flat in the capital.
Until a few short weeks ago the owner could allegedly be seen walking the cub on a leash downtown and has posted pictures which show a young man hugging a lion in a living room on Facebook.
He has refused to heed the group's call to allow the lion to be sent to a sanctuary and pictures of the man with the lion cub continue to surface on Facebook.
Today, local groups like Animals Lebanon are fighting to stem the abuse and illegal trade of animals, pushing for Lebanon to sign CITES.
Backed by the local agriculture minister and in cooperation with legal experts around the world, Animals Lebanon in November submitted to parliament draft legislation that would ensure the protection and welfare of animals.
The draft bill would enforce strict regulations on animal transportation and handling and require permits be obtained by farmers and zoo owners.
Mier said he was pleased with the cooperation of the Lebanese Ministry of Agriculture, which has pushed for the draft law penned by his organisation to be passed in parliament.
"For years we've been dealing with the end result, the fact that there are so many animals living in inappropriate conditions, rather than addressing the root of the problem," Mier explained.
"That is where the law should step in."
And while summer is the best season for Lebanon's lucrative tourism sector, for the country's pets it can bode ill.
"The worst time is between June and September, when some pet owners go on vacation and leave their dogs, cats even vervets on the balcony or in the street," Zahran said
"Unless the government gets on board, nothing will change," she added.
"We are just a bunch of people trying to fight -- trying to stop the problem before it spreads.