January 24, 2012 01:28 AM
By Olivia Alabaster
The Daily Star

BEIRUT: Viewed by many as a danger and a pest, the recent rescue of two striped hyenas from captivity by Animals Lebanon has highlighted the threats to this indigenous species, and the need for greater awareness surrounding the animal, experts say.

Exact numbers of hyenas in Lebanon are not known, but their distribution is widespread, with the animal being found in every governorate in the country, except Beirut, according to Dr. Mounir Abi-Said, founder of Animals Encounter and an expert on hyenas.

The species found in Lebanon, the striped hyena, is endemic to the region, and is also found in Syria, Jordan and Turkey.

It is smaller than its cousin the spotted hyena, found in sub-Saharan Africa, which is more aggressive and lives in packs. However, both species have a bad reputation and this could contribute to the reason they are often hunted and captured in Lebanon, despite the fact they are not killed for their meat.

The scavengers “pose absolutely no threat to humans, and they’re so cowardly that when they see someone their hair just stands on end, like a cat,” Abi-Said said.

But in Lebanon they are often viewed as dangerous and even having a mythical status.

“If you look back at old Arabic literature, people often thought they were bad as they ate dead meat,” Abi-Said said. Also, as the female of the species has a “false penis,” people viewed the animal as wicked, the American University of Beirut and Lebanese University professor added.

“I do think some people see them as being somehow evil, and that by hunting them they are taking care of a perceived problem,” Jason Mier, director of Animals Lebanon, said.

One of the two hyenas rescued by Animals Lebanon, Sarah, was discovered in a cage not big enough for her to turn around in or fully stand up in, kept in a back yard of a private home in Sidon.

“They were kept just to be shown off,” Mier said.

“When we arrived, her brother, kept in an identical cage, was already dead: it died from the way it was being kept, in completely miserable conditions,” Mier added.

A study of the contents of Sarah’s stomach revealed she had eaten plastic and other rubbish.

She is now being kept in Ansar, alongside another female hyena Rita, who was previously in a small zoo in the area.

Animals Lebanon has been in talks with the Environment Ministry since last April about having the two animals rehomed abroad, and received, over the last two weeks, confirmation that travel permits for the animals would be granted.

“We had an hour and a half meeting with the minister and one of his advisers, and we really appreciated that the ministry gave us that much time,” Mier said.

The animals have been offered sanctuary in Turkey, France and the U.S., and the nongovernmental organization is currently trying to organize the transport of the animals, including the construction of cages lined with metal, necessary so that the animals cannot bite their way out. If the organization does not receive sponsorship for the transit of the animals, from an airline or elsewhere, it could cost around $5,000 to transport them both.

In an ideal world, Mier added, the animals would be released back into the wild, however, in the case of Sarah and Rita it was agreed between the NGO and the Environment Ministry that this was not a viable option.

“When it is possible to release an animal, Animals Lebanon completely backs that, and it is the best form of conversation. But in a country like Lebanon where you don’t have the level of protection that you want,” Mier said, it created problems.

Also, he added, Sarah and Rita, having been kept in captivity since they were cubs, are completely used to people, and would therefore find it very difficult to fend for themselves in the wild, and would also be more at risk of being hunted.

Abi-Said at Animals Encounter is currently working on awareness programs, to increase knowledge of this peaceful animal, and the benefits that it provides to the native ecosystem.

“Hyenas have an extremely strong immune system, so in cases such as bird flu, they can eat dead birds with no harm to themselves. Without hyenas, we might have much larger outbreaks of such diseases,” Abi-Said said.

By his estimates, the hunting of wild hyenas has dropped some 75 percent since 2000, partly due to increased awareness and partly due to the urban migration, but he believes more needs to be done. Although classified as “near threatened worldwide”, in Lebanon hyenas should be classified as “endangered,” Abi-Said said.

“More needs to be done to tackle illiteracy and hunting. Animal Lebanon is doing a great job, but rehoming animals outside of the country is not a permanent solution, we must get to the stage where we can keep all wild animals here.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 24, 2012, on page 12.

Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Environment/2012/Jan-24/160848-striped-hyenas-native-to-lebanon-at-risk.ashx#ixzz1kc1CKnsL
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News :: http://www.dailystar.com.lb)