Activists are using Islamic traditions to help save birds in Lebanon

Assad Serhal, a conservationist and former hunter, discovered that ‘hima’, an Arabic word meaning refuge, protected area, private pasture or homeland, was the key to saving the country’s birds, writes Helen Sullivan

Monday 13 January 2020 18:07
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A dead Lesser Spotted eagle is displayed by activists from the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) at their birds observation camp
A dead Lesser Spotted eagle is displayed by activists from the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) at their birds observation camp

On a Saturday in November, a small group of boys in matching royal blue shirts, the uniform of the Scouts of Lebanon, gather beside their “hideout”, a small pine forest on the edge of town. Their mission: collect as many spent shotgun shells as they can find in the next five minutes.

The task has been assigned to them by two volunteers from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon (SPNL), a conservation organisation focused on protecting birds.

Hunting is ubiquitous in Lebanon, which has the 11th-highest rate of small-arms ownership in the world. In a show of hands, nine of the scouts claim to own a gun. Two, both 12 years old, say they are allowed to hunt, and 10 more say they wished they were. Angelo, 16, is not among them.

“Some say it’s a sport, but it’s not, it’s a waste of time,” he says. There are other things you could be doing with the hours spent waiting for birds, he adds. Mike, 12, agrees: “I say also it’s a waste of time, because I don’t like to kill birds.”

Assad Serhal, a founder of SPNL, is a reformed hunter. That morning in Hammana, Serhal grew upset as he showed a photograph that had been spreading on social media. Recently, a series of nationwide protests had been calling for the resignation of Lebanon’s political leaders. One of the chants often shouted by protesters was, “All of them means all of them.” The photograph showed the words of the chant, in Arabic, written using the carcasses of songbirds killed by hunters. The phrase was also underlined in birds, twice.

Among the society’s top concerns is protecting the 2.5 billion migratory birds that pass over the country twice a year. During those journeys, 2.6 million migratory birds are shot or illegally trapped, according to BirdLife International; SPNL is that organisation’s official partner in Lebanon. As other countries examine why some of their protected birds aren’t returning from migration, Lebanon has come under the spotlight.

Feathers and remains of birds killed by hunters at a bird hunting area near the coastal city of Byblos north of Beirut (Getty)

Lebanon’s topography is dominated by two long mountain ranges. Various bird migration routes, or flyways, pass through the country; when squeezed between mountains, the routes narrow, forming bottlenecks. The bottlenecks create conditions for satisfying birdwatching, and make it easier for organisations like SPNL to conduct bird counts.

But the bottlenecks also serve hunters. At certain points throughout the country, the narrow flyways funnel birds through elevated vantage points from which hunters can get easy shots.

In 2017, Axel Hirschfeld, campaign and operations manager with the Committee Against Bird Slaughter, travelled to Lebanon to conduct a survey of the problem. “What we saw in 2017 was the worst I’d seen in 18 years of work for CABS,” he says. Hundreds of dead birds were left uncollected on the ground, and the soft breast feathers of eagles could be seen falling like snow as the birds were shot from the sky.

Hundreds of dead birds were left uncollected on the ground, and the soft breast feathers of eagles could be seen falling like snow as the birds were shot from the sky

Axel Hirschfeld, Committee Against Bird Slaughter

In addition to working closely with CABS, Serhal’s organisation has lobbied Lebanon’s government for stricter anti-poaching laws, developed a bird book and field guide, and visited scout groups and schools. It has also reintroduced a traditional Islamic system of conservation to Lebanon.

Two decades ago, Serhal was looking at century-old military maps of Lebanon when he noticed something oddly familiar: areas labelled “hima” and town names that included the word. In Arabic, hima can mean refuge, protected area, private pasture or homeland; “Humat al-Hima” (Defenders of the Homeland) is Tunisia’s national anthem. Serhal had known vaguely of the idea, but had no idea that hima had existed in Lebanon.

Seagulls fly under a heavy storm cloud off the coast of the Lebanese capital Beirut (Getty)

He discovered that the concept dates back more than 1,000 years, with a mention in the Quran. Muhammad had designated certain areas as hima, which meant they were subject to rules about grazing, hunting or even trade. On Serhal’s maps, it turned out, hima signified communal areas. The word’s appearance gave him an idea: Perhaps he could revive its traditional meaning.

Serhal grew up in Lebanon but studied wildlife management at Oklahoma State University, graduating in 1982, at the height of the Lebanese civil war. His plan was to return and establish a hunting farm in Lebanon. But he abandoned it when, while using binoculars for the first time, he watched as a bobwhite quail hen – a game bird – ushered her chicks from bush to bush.

“That gave me the shock of my life,” he says. His binoculars revealed a different way of viewing nature: “When you go to the field as a hunter with a gun, you don’t see the bird. The minute you flush it, you shoot.” Watching the bobwhite mother protect her chicks, he thought: “I am a criminal.”

That gave me the shock of my life. When you go to the field as a hunter with a gun, you don’t see the bird. The minute you flush it, you shoot

Assad Serhal, founder of Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon

In 1990, Serhal completed a stint at the Brooklyn Zoo and, with Lebanon’s 15-year civil war ended, returned home. In 1996, he helped establish the Shouf Biosphere Reserve, Lebanon’s first national park.

But, after a few years, he felt the Shouf wasn’t working as well as it should. The American model of land designated and protected by the government had angered people in the surrounding villages, who had been free to use the area for as long as anyone could remember to graze livestock and pick wild herbs.

Lebanese bird hunters get ready to practise their sport on the outskirts of the village of Shlifa in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa valley (Getty)

Serhal thought, instead, that hima might be accepted as a traditional concept; it would also include communities and municipalities in the design of the conservation areas. Hima wouldn’t be just about protecting nature, Serhal says; it would be “nature plus people”. When SPNL helped a community design a local hima, the group suggested additional conservation methods, such as banning hunting.

The first hima was established in southern Lebanon in 2004. Today there are 25; they have been given legal status by the government and cover more land than Lebanon’s national parks. Five of the designated hima are also what BirdLife calls “Important Bird Areas”, of which there are 15 in the country. Last year, Serhal was awarded Japan’s Midori Prize for Biodiversity, among the world’s most prestigious awards for conservation work.

Mark Day, a project manager with Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, says that the hima system works because it is flexible. Lebanon has a sectarian government; working across Christian, Muslim and Druze areas can be difficult, but the hima concept allows each community or village to take its own approach. Some of the communities are more interested in restoration, while others hope to create jobs.

Al Shouf Cedar Nature Reserve

Around the world, Day notes, “the protected areas that have lasted longest are those associated with sacred sites or religious sites, or a community defending a spring in the centre of the village because that’s fresh water. Nothing is more valuable.”

The RSPB has a $6m (£4.6m) project to protect the Egyptian vulture, which migrates over Lebanon, where it faces the considerable risk of being shot. Day is optimistic that the hima concept, especially the bans on hunting, will help. “So that if they survive the accidental poisoning in Bulgaria, and the power lines in Turkey, they don’t die here,” Day says. “It’s like Russian roulette with almost all the chambers filled.”

Community members who look after conservation areas are known as “homat al hima”: protectors of the hima, as in the Tunisian anthem. The group likes to work with young members of the scouts because they have been “homat” since the beginning, Serhal says, cleaning up, rehabilitating and reforesting conservation areas. They are disciplined, after all, and loving nature is part of their scouts’ promise.

A hoopoe bird is seen in a field in the village of Damour, south of Beirut (Getty)

He hopes the children that SPNL teaches about birdwatching, conservation and responsible hunting – collecting your shotgun shells, hunting only during the proper season – will ultimately influence their parents. Perhaps someday Lebanese children will receive their first pair of binoculars instead of their first gun. “You can’t underestimate the power of binoculars,” Serhal says.

Back at the scouts’ hideout, two volunteers with SPNL give teams Eagle, Lion, Fox and Pegasus a lesson in the environmental dangers of discarded shells: besides the plastic, which would take years to decompose, lead could leak into the groundwater.

The municipality plans to designate the hideout a hima, too. For now, hunting is allowed in the pine forest. The evidence is everywhere. Once the scouts finished their collecting mission, the shells are counted. The total, picked up in five minutes, is 102. The Eagles, with 42 shells, win.

© New York Times

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