By Dalila Mahdawi
Wednesday, March 17, 2010

BEIRUT: Lebanon looks set to join a key international convention protecting endangered species and plants, a local animal welfare organization has said.

Agriculture Minister Hussein al-Hajj Hassan traveled to Qatar to discuss with Willem Wijnstekers, the secretary feneral of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the possibility of signing up, Animals Lebanon’s co-founder and vice president Maggie Shaarawi told The Daily Star on Monday.

Delegates from almost 150 countries have gathered in Doha for the March 13-25 conference, being held in the Middle East for the first time, to debate and vote on 40 proposals curbing or banning trade in endangered animals and plants. Lebanon and Bahrain are the only Arab states not to have signed the 1975 agreement, to which 175 states are party.

But Lebanon could come in from the cold as soon as 2011, according to Animals Lebanon officials who were invited to sit in on Hajj Hassan’s talks with Wijnstekers Monday. “The minister made it clear to the secretary general of CITES that he has every intention of having Lebanon join CITES within one year,” the organization’s president, Lana al-Khalil, said in a press release from Doha.

While Lebanon is technically required to monitor any trade of animals between countries that have ratified the convention, the lack of training in animal policing and rife bribery means it is an easy base for animal smugglers to import and export endangered species. Elephants, big cats and chimpanzees are just some of the species known to have been smuggled in and out of Lebanon.

Last September, a lion cub was discovered abandoned in a cage in a Beirut alleyway. The severely dehydrated animal, which had been kept illegally, died shortly after being rescued. Endangered monkeys and other species are also commonly found in unregulated pet shops or private zoos.

In December, Animals Lebanon alerted Hajj Hassan to the presence of the Egyptian Monte Carlo circus in Beirut’s Dora suburb.

Investigations into the circus showed it had entered Lebanon without the correct paperwork and with several of its animals, including three tigers and six lions, in need of urgent veterinary treatment.

Hajj Hassan declared the circus illegal in January and ordered it be closed immediately. He also ruled that the circus should leave Lebanon, although the animals and employees of Monte Carlo still appear to be at the circus ground.

“The case of the circus and the trade of the lions and tigers highlighted the urgent need to have Lebanon join CITES and protect these endangered species,” Animals Lebanon quoted Hajj Hassan as saying in Doha. If Beirut signs CITES, smugglers will be left with fewer countries to exploit as bases for illegal trading in wildlife.

Lebanon will also be able to take punitive action, with backing from the international community, against those who attempt to illegally trade endangered species.

Upon joining the convention, Lebanon should take care to introduce and enforce adequate penalties for individuals who fail to comply with its obligations, Animals Lebanon quoted Wijnstekers as telling Hajj Hassan.

“In many countries the penalties are so minimal that they do not act as any form of deterrent. Smugglers, if punished, can just consider the penalties as ‘part of doing business’ and not something which will stop illegal trade,” he said.

Khalil meanwhile urged Lebanon to stay true to the spirit of CITES.

“Joining CITES is more than being part of an international accord – it is a historic initiative to position Lebanon with the rest of the nations that recognize the importance of protecting its environment and wildlife,” she said.